The dude sitting in front of me had C.R.E.A.M. tattooed on the back of his neck.
As he violated persons unknown over the phone with his collections skills, I shivered.
I had to get the fuck out of here.
I was on my fourth day back on the phones, a collections agent for a long-standing criminal enterprise in Montreal. Like most long-term spots, it's offered services included the typical "Yellow Pages" subscription, paper rolls for debit machines, and counterfeit money detectors; they had also branched into first-aid kits in recent years, since several states had now passed laws mandating their presence in the workplace. This meant banner sales for our outbound team.
The company also had an in-house collections agency, where I was posted. As soon as an invoice went unpaid for 30 days, the gap-toothed little minx from AR would bounce the file down to us, the Collections Team, and we would follow up with the 'customer'.
In terms of who you wanted to get stuck on the phone with, I was your best bet. That's because I had no intention of actually trying to get payment for anything. I was there to acquire as many paychecks as I could before getting fired to pay for my ticket to Amsterdam, where we were booked at the end of the month. We had killer shows lined up in Brussels and Rotterdam too. I salivated at the thought of crushing Euro stages, of enrapturing strange young women of old-world bloodlines.
Our record had gotten some critical praise, and we had just played our biggest show yet, an opening slot for a big-name electronic act. We played to a packed house of 1000, live voodoo wreckage onsite…The only review I had seen so far said our set was 'ridiculous', and that from a Frenchman yet.
The phone picked up. "Hello?"
I pressed the release button and the line went dead. Oops.
I sighed and scrolled through the call log screens, selecting the client file for an Update.
Under 'Notes', I typed the following:
Do you ever think about getting a different job? This shit is borderline criminal. The poor fuckers we are calling are just hardworking people trying to run their businesses, and we conspire to rip them off. How sweet. Seriously, quit this fucking job now. La la la.
I tapped 'Save' and smiled. I had acted as a subverting interest within call centers for quite some time, but never to such a blatant extent. Before this one, my most recent position had generously allowed me to book many shows on company time by not clueing in that I had 15 browser windows open during my shifts, all dedicated to personal interests.
They were a new operation; I knew they had no workstation monitoring in effect yet.
As with most things in life, timing is everything.
Feeling righteous at that job, I had gotten ballsy, whispering to clients over the phone to "Just say that you will call the Attorney General," I would advise. "Once they hear those words, they will delete the invoice. It's the only way to beat them."
The gratitude from the client would be overwhelming. "I cant thank you enough. We pay all our bills on time, but this one - I mean, it's just a scam, and my husband is ill…"
"I know, yes it is a scam. Just mention the AG and you will be ok. All right?"
That one, at least, I had managed to keep for a couple months. I had caught them at a good time, just getting set-up, meaning the workload wouldn’t be significant for a few months yet. And the no-monitoring was perfect for my ghost-in-the-machine act, which could very realistically have gotten me a severe beating or worse had I been found out.
Actively sabotaging the revenue stream of an organized criminal enterprise? Stupid - and I would like to think, noble.
This one, my collections gig, I knew I would be gone in a week or so. I had progressed to a level of zero respect for these slimeballs and could no longer hide my contempt for the industry that had sustained me financially for so long. Every morning, as we smoked in the bitter grey cold, the big boss would arrive in his Lamborghini, made out of other people's suffering and stupidity and his own vile interest, scattering plebes like pigeons as he wheeled in to man the top tiers of this corrupt enterprise.
I would look at his push-button convertible and his vanity plates and smolder inwardly. "A real fucking tough guy eh? A real class act… One more pathetic fucking criminal with a taste for innocence and a hard-on for money… A bag of shit who will get what he deserves some day - hopefully a mugging and a quick stab with a dirty syringe."
I didn't think I was any better - we're all fuck-ups after all - but at least I wasn't proud of my faults, wasn't actively nurturing them, wasn't bragging with a Lamborghini about how many people I had ripped off.
I wanted to stab him in the guts, to feel a knife dig around his precious interior; wanted to burn fistfuls of dollars in my bare bloody hands in front of his dying eyes.
Break was over. We streamed back in, the Arabic girls in headdress, sweatpants-wearing cigarette-toothed lifers, Montreal North bottom feeders, macks, bangers and hustlers alike.
The building was straight out of an 80's coke-flick. A squat six stories, it occupied prime real estate in downtown Montreal, a tough little aberration among the towering glass cathedrals of the banks and investment firms.
They owned the whole building. One floor was sales, one was the cafeteria, one was collections, and so on. Each entry and exit point was secured by an ancient punch-in security system, where you enter your hand and squeeze these stationary plastic pegs.
I guess the squeeze-style was as unique as a fingerprint, because once you squeezed, it clanged and registered your action. It was pretty cool.
There were cameras everywhere. The lobby was faux-marble and overseen by an attractive brunette, Italian, in her late thirties.
* * *
I rounded the corner and tapped on the glass door. My card didn’t work anymore.
She glared at me, then reluctantly stood and came to the door.
"What do you want?" Her friendly tone was long gone; I had walked out mid-shift a couple days previous.
"I'm here for my paycheck," I smiled.
"Well, they are not ready yet. Come back tomorrow."
"It's Wednesday, I know they are ready. Eric the collections manager has them."
"Well, we'll call him, and see about that." She swung open the door for me to enter behind her.
She sat down at her reception desk and picked up the phone.
"Hi Eric, I have an ex-employee here to pick up his check…mm hmm… it's Nathan… all right." She held the phone out to me, smiling.
"He wants to talk to you."
I took the receiver. "Hey Eric."
"You're a comedian, eh? You think you're pretty funny."
Eric, interestingly, looked very similar to Erik Engstrom, founder of my favourite band, HORSE the Band. I found it hard to reconcile that these two similar genotypes would go on to such disparate endeavours.
I pictured him speaking to me from his desk, the other collections agents well within earshot. Had I simply left, there would likely have been no bad feelings - call centers are designed for high turnover. But I had disrespected him and the company with my client-notes messages, which were practically impossible to delete once saved in the file.
"What's the problem? It wasn't working out, so I left." I was actually starting to sweat a little. I needed that check.
"Well, since you were being so funny in your notes, maybe I'll be funny too. Maybe I'll just keep your paycheck and cancel it. Huh? Wouldn’t that be funny?"
I kept my voice calm. "Well, Eric, if you did that, then I'm sorry but I would have to call the Normes du Travail. I certainly expect to get paid for the hours I worked with the company." The last thing these guys want is a complaint filed against them with the labour standards board. I hoped that would shut him up.
"I'll mail you the check. You're never setting foot in here again."
I smiled at the receptionist; her glare had never left me. "Thanks Eric. I'll expect it next week." I handed her back the phone.
* * *
I did a double take as I passed the newsstand.
The cover of the Montreal Gazette, Tuesday Oct. 9 read:
ALLEGED FRAUD RING BUSTED IN MONTREAL
Police herded about 130 people from a nondescript downtown Montreal office building to RCMP headquarters for questioning Tuesday in what they described as a major crackdown on an alleged international telemarketing ring.
"No fucking way," I scanned the article for details.
Jesus Christ. It was. Belmont Street. I couldn’t believe it. They had been around forever!
When had I left? The previous Monday…came by on Wednesday for a check.
And now… after 12 years in business… they were done.
I had some timing. But I was as worried as I was grateful.
How would I get the check?