This book is dedicated to
my older brother, Nicholas Joseph Fante, 1942-1997. Dead from alcoholism.
Crushed like a dog in the street.
"...he hath sent
me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."
I hadn't written a word or a story or anything in months. And I
hated my job. But that didn't matter now. Nothing mattered because
of the heat. It took an hour for me to finally make myself get up,
put on a shirt, and get ready for work. I'd been avoiding it since
Outside on the burning, suffocating
street, I yanked a new parking ticket out from under the windshield
wiper of my 11-year-old Chrysler, then tore it into as many small
pieces as possible, flinging it at the sky. I hated being back in
L.A. I hated that I hadn't had a drink in months. I hated that I
was losing my hair. I hated my job. I hated filtered cigarettes
and rap music and Tom Cruise's big, stupid white teeth. And I hated
the fucking Parking Violations Bureau.
Opening the car door to my Chrysler
was a mistake. The contained force of what had built up in an automobile
after several days in the sun in a heat wave with the windows up,
hit me. Exploding stagnation, decaying vinyl, strangled dust. A
clear warning to go back to my room.
I was running late, so I threw my
canvassing book and my coupon demo packets across to the passenger
side of the car, sucked in a gulp of the rancid oxygen, then stuck
the key in the ignition.
I repeated the procedure. Nothing.
I switched the ignition back all the
way to the left to see if the electrical stuff, the gauges and flashers
and the other shit, were working. Still nothing.
Sweat was beginning to collect on
my forehead and beneath my shirt.
I tried the key again a new way: wiggled
it, jiggled it sort-of, hoping that the motor might catch. It had
worked before - another time on some other car before my life had
turned on me. But not now. Again nothing.
A man walked by.
He appeared to be on his way to his
own car. Dressed for the heat wave. Carrying a briefcase and wearing
a pair of neatly-pressed tan slacks and a floral, green-mostly,
silky, Hawaiian, sports shirt. L.A. casual. I recognized this person
as a home owner from down my block, with the wife, the dog, the
table saw in the garage. We had seen each other on the street a
few times but had never spoken.
As he came closer, his eyes met mine
for an instant, then darted away. I knew why. He recognized me.
I was one of the come-and-go residents of the sober-living apartment
house on the corner. A shitsucking loser. I would live to be six-hundred
million years old and still never earn the word 'hello' from this
citizen prick or his fat-butted wife who spent her afternoons digging
in the garden.
Passing my car's side window, he slowed
down, bending at the waist to steal a glance inside. Maybe, I thought,
maybe he's wondering why another adult, dressed for work in a sports
jacket, slacks and tie, would be sitting behind the wheel of his
car in the direct sunlight on the hottest day of the year with the
windows up and his motor not running, sweating, suffocating, wiggling
his ignition key back and forth like a brain-damaged retard fuck.
I looked at my watch. It was 10:15
AM. I'd never make the sales meeting.
Unable to think of anything else to
do, I lit a cigarette. It was the last cigarette in my pack of Lucky's.
I took a hit and watched the inside of the Chrysler fill with drifting
rivers of smoke. I hated everything. God. Everything.
"This is Albert Berlinski. How may
I help you?"
"Mister Berlinski, it's Bruno Dante."
"Dante! What's up? Where've you been?
You missed both of the demos we had scheduled for you on Friday
"I've had car problems with my Chrysler
again, Mister Berlinski."
"Myrna had to 'no-show' those presentations
-- call your clients, re-schedule everything herself. You never
For the last few days I had been reading
a David Martin novel and staying in the coolness of my room because
of my revulsion for door to door canvassing in the miserable heat
and smog of my Glendale sales territory. "I was waiting for my mechanic
to finish another car before he could start work on mine," I said.
"An engine job."
"This is Monday, Dante. You've had
three days to fix your vehicle. What time will you be in?"
"The goddamn thing wouldn't start
again this morning."
"Sooo... now what?"
"I don't know. Personally, I'm at
a loss. Nonplused. Befuddled."
"Of course this means you won't be
attending the sales meeting again. I'll have to tell Mister Fong."
"I promise you I'll get the car squared
away and be in by this afternoon. You have my word."
Berlinski paused -- the death pause
-- I recognized it immediately. It comes just before the words that
tell you you're bumped. "You know Dante," he said, "we're prolonging
the inevitable here. Bring in your units and I'll cut you a final
"Mister Berlinski, I just said that
I'd be there this afternoon!"
"We totaled out the sales numbers
this morning. Last month you were number twelve. Down from number
"I can count, Berlinski. I'm aware
"In May you were also number ten.
You've been number ten twice and number twelve once. You also no-showed
at the Track Selling Seminar last Saturday. Mister Fong himself
brought that up to me during our strategy review. Not being there
was a mistake."
"I know I missed the seminar. I felt
like rat shit missing the seminar. That seminar course was a vital
component in my growth as an ambitious sales professional. I had
a sincere desire to be there, believe me. It's my goddamn car."
"Fortunately for the company, as I
just said, the issue is now resolved."
"Mister Berlinski, never buy a Chrysler
product. They're hog excrement. No wonder the Japs and other alien
conglomerates are taking over America. My car is further evidence
of the demise of the fucking U.S. economy and the American dream.
May I please talk to Fong personally on this?"
"It's my decision, not Mister Fong's.
You're terminated. As of today. Bring in your units and your demo
kit and the coupon books. I'll have Myrna total up what we owe you."
"I'm being kicked while I'm down.
I fucking-goddamn strongly suggest that you reconsider your decision."
"How many units do you have in your
"I've got the two Kirbys, a Hoover
upright and the five hand-held Dirt Devils that were distributed
to my team after the show. Eight pieces all together. What about
another shot here, Mister Berlinski?"
"Bring the units in. I'll voucher
"That's it? I'm fired?"
"Well...okay, Mister Berlinski. But
before you hang up, I would like to share something with you. Can
I do that? On a man-to-man level? May I be permitted thirty fucking
seconds of your valuable, priceless, sales-executive time?"
"I'm busy, Dante. I'm in the middle
of figuring the totals for all three teams. We'll talk when you
"You and I have spoken a lot on the
phone, Mister Berlinski. Sometimes two or three times a day. Sometimes
more if I got lost on my way to a demo and had to stop at a pay
phone for directions. Okay? Correct or uncorrect?"
"Bring the units in, Dante. I'll make
sure you get your check."
"I just wanted to say, Mister Berlinski,
that almost every time after we've talked, after I've hung up, I'd
get back in my car and I'd feel like I just finished interacting
with a sour-faced sub-human cocksucker with the same empathy and
inter-personal dexterity as one of the assholes behind the glass
at the DMV Information Window. I regard you as a complete putz,
Berlinski. I always have."
"No demo units, no check."
I looked through my pockets. I had
four dollars. Enough for a newspaper, a new pack of Lucky Strikes,
and a container of coffee at the 7-Eleven. I went back upstairs
to my dorm room, took off my jacket and necktie and slacks, and
threw them at the wall.
Yesterday's shirt and my unwashed
jeans fit my body like old friends.
On the floor in my closet on top of
my father's hand-me-down Smith-Corona portable typewriter I found
my Yankees cap with the big "NY" on the front. I slipped the hat
on as protection against the heat. Jonathan Dante, my father, had
been dead for eleven months. He died broke, broken hearted, collecting
a stinking Writer's Guild Pension and $762 a month in Social Security.
A forgotten screenwriter. I had returned here to L.A. from New York
City to watch him die, to inherit this typewriter. Three months
ago, my cousin Willie checked out too. Booze and an overdose. Crazy,
fat Willie. Thirty-five years old. Two Dante funerals in a less
than a year.
Next to the typewriter, on the floor
in the typing-paper box, was the only thing I had written and not
thrown out since returning to Los Angeles: a short story called;
"Compatibility." Twenty-five pages. I picked the story
up and looked at the wrinkled title page, then back down at the
typewriter's bared black keys. They stared up at me like the eyes
of frightened boat people. Hurling the pages back into the darkness,
I slammed the closet door.
On the street, on my way to the store,
I had an insight, a flash that penetrated my understanding. My real
difficulty -- my problem -- wasn't my depressions or my drinking
or my job failures or even the unarticulated fear that I was a fucking
insane whack. My problem was people. And they were located everywhere.
In order to live at the sober-living house where I lived,
I had to not drink and attend three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
per week. At these meetings, I would hear reformed alkies stand
up and blubber on about how great and miraculous their lives were
without booze and drugs. How wonderful their new job was and what
gifts from God and all manner of preposterous, come-to-Jesus bullshit.
How they were now able to form lasting relationships or patch up
the old ones with their separated wives and girlfriends and how
their children had stopped darting behind furniture and fleeing
to their bedrooms when they saw them coming through the front door.
Tra-la-la. Etcetera. So forth. Not my experience. I was not what
AA's call a WINNER even though the WINNERS are supposed to be the
people who haven't had a drink all day. I was not some transformed,
anointed, cured gimp, tap dancing my way through life and thanking
God and the Twelve Steps for keeping him sober and saving his ass.
Recently, I'd heard Chickenbone, our moron, sober-living house manager,
giving an AA peptalk to one of the miserable new guys who was two
weeks off alcohol and rock cocaine. At the end of his lecture, he
looked the kid in the face and said, "You know boy, sometimes you're
the windshield and sometimes you're the bug." I hate hearing pig
snot like that. AA is full of that shit. Philosophical one liners
that imply that life on life's terms has its ups and downs but will
somehow all equal out in the end. Tell that shit to the guys collecting
plastic bottles and soda cans pushing their shopping carts down
Broadway in Santa Monica or the young kid I met at the Friday Night
meeting who was out on bail after his last "slippy-poo." He thumped
his girlfriend in a blackout and is now about to be sentenced to
five years because of the O.J. violence laws in California. Nice
work God. Hail Mary, full of grace.
For me, going without booze for the
last four months straight was the hardest thing I had ever done.
I was sober and no better off than before.
My weekly rent for my dormitory room
at the sober-living house was already three days late. I telephoned
my AA sponsor, Liquorstore Dave, from the payphone in the upper
hallway. In AA a "sponsor" is your support system, someone who has
already worked the 12 Steps and had been sober a while. Liquorestore
Dave had dozens of recovering alkie friends. My hope was to catch
a break and get a job recommendation.
After spilling my guts to Dave about
getting bumped from Fong's Home Maintenance and letting him know
about my rent situation, he made me endure a five-minutes sponsor
lecture. In the end, he insisted that I be willing to surrender
to his advice. "You can't think your way into right acting,
Bruno. You have to act your way into right thinking. Your Higher
Power has to be your top priority. Recovery first, right?"
I heard him leafing through his address
book on the other end, looking for a number. Then he stopped. "Didn't
you once tell me that you were a writer too?"
"I've got a friend who writes resumes.
He has an office in Culver City. Used to be a serious drunk; a hot-shot
genius like you."
"I don't know anything about writing
"What kind of stuff have you written?
Bad checks? Ha ha."
"Poetry - a short story now and then."
"You the next Stephen King?"
"The last Bruno Dante."
"Ever make any money writing, Bruno?"
"High two digits."
"Ha ha." Dave kept flipping
through his address book. "You used to do phone work, didn't you?
Boiler rooms? Telemarketing?"
"In New York," I said.
He stopped turning pages. "Perfect.
Okay, call this guy."
I copied down the phone number of
a friend of Dave's, Frankie Freebase. According to Dave, Frankie
was a "Winner." He had over seven years of continuous sobriety and
was now making good money at a phone sales gig. Then I was given
more sponsor direction. Dave told me to write a letter to God asking
for help in finding the right career.
What follows here is a copy of the
letter I wrote after I got back to my room:
Please help me to know what the fuck
to do with my life and how to fix it.
I was done, I folded the letter and stuck it in the fly leaf of
the novel I had been reading, Tap Tap by David Martin.
After sitting quietly for a minute
or two, a thought came to me. The AA Big Book on page 87 calls this
inspiration and spiritual guidance. The guidance I got was to go
out to my Chrysler and try to start it again. I scooped up my car
keys, went downstairs in the nostril-searing heat, and did what
the guidance said.
No God. Not a fuck. Nothing.
minute he came on the line and opened his mouth, I knew that Frankie
Freebase was from New York City - the typical-type phone guy I had
worked with a dozen times. Only more so, because he was an ex-drug
His questions came at me like Uzi
machine-gun fire. When I said that I had six years of experience
in phone sales, it didn't mean anything. But when I said my AA sponsor
was Liquorstore Dave, it was as if I knew the secret handshake.
I was in.
We talked more. Frankie talked. Non-stop.
Twenty minutes worth of words, syllables, and paragraphs escaping
his mouth like the Bosnia Army fleeing nerve gas.
The company where he worked, Orbit
Computer Products, was in the business of selling generic label
computer printer ribbons and new and re-stuffed laser printer cartridges.
They employed about 75 telemarketers. Frankie was one of the top
salesmen. Orbit paid its people straight commission. No paid vacations.
No 401Ks. The owner of the company was also a sober AA guy, Eddy
Kammegian. Through Frankie Freebase, I got a job interview with
Leon, my roommate at the sober-living
house, worked nights as a security guard. He came home, and I talked
him into driving me to Olympic Boulevard in downtown L.A. to Fong's
Home Maintenance. In Al Berlinski's office I turned in my coupon
books, all the vacuums, and my demo kit. Berlinski inspected everything,
counting each page of each coupon book to make sure I hadn't pilfered
any of his precious fucking coupons. An hour later, I got my final
check. One hundred and forty three dollars.
Next morning at 5:30A.M., as prearranged
by Liquorstore Dave and Frankie Freebase, Frankie swung by my sober-living
house to pick me up. I had slept for two hours. Standing on the
front steps, I watched a new, racing-green Jaguar convertible pull
to the curb. Frankie was slurping coffee from a Starbuck's 16-ounce
traveling mug. Already wired.
I had my tie on, my sports jacket,
and my only pair of good shoes. But I was a schlub compared to my
ride. His tan double-breasted suit alone was easily worth a thousand
dollars. And either his tie pin was fake glass or a four-karat mug
-- me diamond.
It was still dark, and the streets
were empty and wet with ocean mist as we zipped along on our way
toward Santa Monica. Boiler rooms in L.A. get started early because
of the 3-hour time difference from their east coast customers. Frankie
cranked up the sound level on a Zig Ziglar motivational CD. I had
never heard Zig or anything else other than rap music played that
loud before. A bank thermometer said it was already seventy degrees.
In the distance, to the East, the sun was a wavy bubble just beginning
to pulse up through the haze, peeking between the high rise office
buildings in Century City. My mind, the firing squad, numb and dumb
and tired, went into neutral for the rest of the ride.
Pulling into the company parking lot,
Frankie tucked the ragtop Jag into his spot. My interview with Eddy
Kammegian was set for six o'clock.
Orbit's offices were located in a
deserted warehouse area of Santa Monica near where the old Southern
Pacific railroad used to dead-end.
company didn't look like much from the outside as we walked toward
it across the gravel: a plain, older, free-standing, one-story concrete
box. High up near the roof was a single row of opaque, wire-covered
windows. The sharp incandescent lighting from inside was the only
evidence of life.
We were stopped by a fancy security
door that sported an elaborately-lettered gold sign. The sign read,
"Through This Portal Pass The World's Greatest Salespeople."
To the right, above the door frame,
was a blinking red alarm bulb. Frankie sliced a plastic card through
a device and the light stopped blinking, changed to green, and the
thick entry way clunked open.
Inside, everything was different.
Orbit was huge -- dozens of partitioned-off
desks and cubbyholes. The space itself was large enough to be an
Already I could hear the chatter of
"front" pitches and whoops of celebration from people
closing sales. The room's intensity reminded me of the Stock Exchange
in New York or Sunday afternoon at an Atlantic City casino.
Frankie pointed across the marketing
area to an all-glass office overlooking the floor. "Up those stairs,
hotshot," he barked. "Remember, knock first. Kammegian don't like
"Wish me luck?"
Eddy Kammegian's smile had as much
sincerity as Bill Clinton's. Orbit's dress code was that all the
males wore ties. The suits, like Eddy and Frankie-Freebase, were
the wheels, the bosses. The guys without jackets, the ones in plain
white shirts with ties, were the regular grunts like me. Women at
the company wore dresses or pants with blouses.
He was young to be as successful as
Frankie said he was, middle thirties. Big too. Six-three or six-four,
weighing at least two hundred and twenty-five pounds, with the look
and moves of a nimble primate as he crossed the carpet to his desk.
High forehead, hair cut short. Mark McGwire in a Georgio Armani
pinstripe. Behind him on the wall were trophies and plaques and
a lot of militaristic looking shit and paraphernalia.
We sat down. His desk surface was
the size of two mahogany coffins. The silence was so clumsy I had
to talk. "Shouldn't I be filling something out; an application,"
The salesman's teeth were back. "There's
no paperwork to fill out, Mister Dante."
Now I smiled. "So, how does your company
hire people? Like this?" I asked.
"Just like this, Mister Dante. Exactly
"What about work history? References?
"My agenda in the interview phase
is to create a relationship with each of our potential new Account
"You interview everybody yourself?"
I must have made a face. Kammegian
noticed me doing it. "That bothers you?" he asked.
"No. But most other companies this
size have a department for hiring. Human Resources. Personnel."
"Frankie tells me that you're new
on the AA program. You moved here from New York?"
I nodded. "Right. Correct. But I was
born and raised in L.A."
"And you have experience in telemarketing?"
"Yes I do. I have experience."
"And you're 'good' on the phone?"
"Oh, just okay?"
"No, I'm good...I'm a winner."
Kammegian's big body tilted back in
his oxblood leather chair. "Question, Bruno: What's your definition
"In telemarketing. In sales. Real
I noticed a gold or brass dish on
my side of the desk. I took it for an ash tray. "Okay to smoke?"
"Orbit is a tobacco-free environment."
"Well -- okay -- I think courage in
phone sales is being persistent, continuing to ask for the order
-- to keep closing until the mooch says yes. That takes guts."
"I'd call that tenacity."
"No, not WHATEVER! Tenacity is an
admirable quality, but it's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring
here to genuine courage, Bruno."
"It takes genuine courage to keep
asking for the order, Eddy."
"May I give you my definition?
"The essence of true courage in any
dynamic, pro-active sales environment is a systematic sustained
effort despite whatever obstacles one may encounter."
"Setting goals! Maintaining focus
through the beginning days and months of massive rejection. Making
call after call. Lashing oneself to the task of achievement, making
the unshakable conscious decision to do and go through whatever
is necessary to be a success. That's real courage. Front-line foxhole
"I hear what you're saying, Eddy."
"No, Mister Dante, you don't. You're
full of shit! You want a job with my company and I'm the boss so
the astute thing to do is to agree with whatever I say. Sitting
here now if I told you that my senior managers and I ritually put
on flowing orange robes, shave our pubic hair, and drink chicken
blood in the moonlight on Tuesday nights, you'd look across at me,
smile, then nod your head approvingly."
"I'm ready. When do I start?"
"Frankly Bruno, candidly, the person
I see before me, across the desk, is a loser, a train-wreck. Your
body language screams it. The smell of what you are is now stuck
to the walls of my office like the odor of tenement piss."
I was on my feet.
"Sit down, Dante. I'm not finished.
You're sober how many days -- thirty? Sixty?"
"What is this?"
"Sit down. Or leave. Take your choice."
I stayed standing.
"In December, I'll be ten years off
booze and drugs."
"You're here for a job, correct?"
"Yeah, but no one told me I'd have
to suck your cock for it."
"My top salesman earned two hundred-and-ninety-two
thousand dollars last year. If that kind of income interests you,
then sit down!"
I sat down.
"I ask the questions. You answer.
I nodded yes then changed my mind.
"So how about asking some of the ones that don't make the interviewee
feel like a Gulag inmate?"
The big man's smile was back. "You
should have seen your face just now," he sneered. "Your
eyes had the expression of a stray dog loose on the freeway in rush
hour traffic. Was that your success face?"
I got up. "Know what Eddy -- fuck
Kammegian was up too, pointing. "There's
the door, bitch! Have a nice day."
I wanted to move but couldn't. There
was nowhere to go. I felt frozen. Instead, finally, I sat back down.
"Better," he hissed. "Now
tell me how many phone sales jobs you've had in the past few years.
What types of products have you sold?"
"What have I sold?...Everything. Why?"
"That's a non-answer."
"Okay, name a boiler room hustle..."
"Let's narrow it down. What've you
sold here in Los Angeles?"
"In L.A. I've sold vacuum cleaners
door to door and a dating service. No phone stuff."
I realized that I had nothing to lose.
"I was a flame-out at telemarketing," I said. "I wound
up pounding vodka and snorting coke all day in the phone rooms where
"How many telephone selling jobs have
you had? Total?"
"I don't know. A lot."
"My fuse is getting short, Mister
Dante. How many?"
I ticked them off. "Credit correction,
guaranteed loans, hair restoration, rare coins, tools, office supplies,
copier toner, oil and gas leases, knock-off feature videos, ad space,
fund raising, porno, cable and wire, driveway cleaner, vitamins,
internet website manuals, and discount long-distance. There's probably
more. How many is that?"
"Orbit is a straight deal, Mister
Dante. No lying, no bribing. Our customers are 'clients,' not mooches.
"What makes you want to do phone work
"I wasn't sure until this morning
when I saw Frankie Freebase's green Jag convertible. Then I was
sure. What time should I be here tomorrow?"
"Our policy is that your first four
weeks are probationary. You will be assigned to our 'Incubator'
on Monday. If you make quota for a month, you're hired. Understood?"
"How many AA meetings are you attending
"Three, usually. How about you?"
"Three's not enough for someone like
you. You've got stinking thinking. Five-thirty AM Monday morning.
"I'll be here."
Kammegian leaned across the big desk.
"Mister Dante, there are three important dates in my life. Would
you like to hear what they are?"
"Absolutely. I can't wait."
"The first one is the date of my birth.
The second one is the day I got sober. That day changed my life.
And the third most important date in my life is right now! Today.
Mister Dante, to hire one champion closer I have to train fifty
people. That's the mortality rate at Orbit."
"You won't be sorry about me."
"My advise: put your balls on the
line. I'm a history buff. Washington is my favorite American general."
"Glad to hear it. I liked Ronald
"He wasn't a general."
"He was in the movies. Can I
"When Washington was outnumbered,
out-gunned, his army exhausted and in retreat, someone -- a reporter
of the day -- asked the great leader if he was considering a surrender.
He hadn't slept in forty-eight hours, he had an unattended leg wound.
Washington looked the man in the eye, never even pausing. 'We shall
re-group and attack,' he said. You too, Mister Dante. Re-group.
Attack. You have just joined an elite assault force. And take that
ridiculous chip off your shoulder."
The big man stood up. His hand was
out. "Welcome to Orbit. Onward and upward."
"Banzai," I said. Then I shook the