Monday, March 16, 2009
THE TELEMARKETER'S POINT OF VIEW
I like it best when we work at the two phones in the lunch alcove, just Hank and me. It's crowded, rubbing up against the fax machine, the copier and the lunch table. But there's a huge window with this dramatic western panorama. We see thunderstorms; we see sunsets. We might be lowly phoners, but we've got a better view than most CEO's.
Our office faces the Cook County Jail. Behind it and a little to its left is the Stock Exchange. Hank jokes they should build an airbridge from the jail to the Exchange, like they've got in Minneapolis, to avoid trudging through the snow. But he's not thinking about weather. He wants to give the inmates a shot at sabotaging the markets, or make the traders spend the night in a cell. Maybe both.
The jail's a funny building, not prison-like at all. It's a high-rise, covered with skinny rectangular slits instead of windows. It's a big triangular block on end -- not like any place I've ever seen. Seems they couldn't bother with a fourth wall for the trouble locked inside.
Down at the base, there's this small grove of sickly locust trees in concrete planters. Listless trees, Hank calls them. Half the locusts have signs nailed to their trunks warning: No Skateboarding, No Roller Blading Allowed. Sometimes the phoners sit there, in Prisoner Plaza, and we smoke or eat a taco. We watch the guards and visitors slip in and out of the lobby. Nobody's ever smiling.
Out on the sidewalk one day, I overheard a tour guide say the jail was designed by some guy called Stanley Tigerman, which sounds like a made up name to me. Anyway, what's most interesting about the jail, you can't tell from the ground. It's only visible from up here, on the 13th floor of the Old Colony Building. You can't see much of the roof level prison yard through the bars - just a bunch of faceless bodies milling around in orange jumpsuits. But we've got a bird's eye view of the action on top of the parking lot north of the jail and across the el tracks. It's kitty corner from our big window. Every week or so, somebody spills out of a car - a fat mamasita dragging herself out of a beat up Ford, or a whole family pouring out of a new van. They've always got a clutch of melamine balloons, and they're always waving like mad up at the prison roof. Sometimes the kids are jumping up and down. Once, two girls unfurled a long orange banner that read Happy Birthday Calvert.
On the day I'm talking about, we were phoning into a western suburb. It was still light out, barely, and there was a faint pink glow dusting the horizon. Hank and I staked out our window seats and looked around. Thirteen floors below, someone had tossed a perfectly good motorcycle into a trash dumpster outside the jail, like an aborted escape attempt.
I sat and shuffled my call sheets. The office was droning like a hornet's nest. The air itself seemed infected with our murmured questions, "If the election were today, would you vote for..."
Then, Hank and I heard this hooting and hollering from across the way - even through the thick, hundred year old panes of glass. Prisoners were yelping and whistling. It sounded like a riot. I thought that maybe the inmates were in revolt. I pictured them, bands of orange men, streaming through Prisoner Plaza, playing hide and seek in the locust trees, smiles of glee plastered across their faces.
Hank nodded at the parking structure. On the roof, there was a tall black girl, wearing this silver sequined bathing suit and spiked heels. She was strutting back and forth in front of her car, a shiny Red Jeep Cherokee. She'd stop and wiggle her hips or lift her breasts up toward the prison roof with her hands. She did this quite a while before breaking her rhythm and opening the car door. She left it ajar and ducked behind it, bending away from the crowd. Then we watched her hand peek over the top like a shy puppet before tossing her silver bra off the parking lot roof. It landed on the el tracks. The hooting got louder. Then, nothing. No girl. It was just a few seconds, but it felt like forever. She was hiding, or waiting maybe, or trying to work up her nerve. When she finally stood up and slammed the door, she planted her legs wide apart and propped her hands on her hips like she was some kind of superhero nudist, without the cape.
But nobody was thinking about her superpowers. She had the largest naked breasts I'd ever seen, not that I've seen that many. I never saw my momma undressed and my roommate Caroline is pretty modest, whenever she's around.
Hank nudged me and slid his chair closer to mine. "She's got a great tan," he said. He tapped my hand with the tip of his finger and I felt my throat catch. I must have been holding my breath. Maybe he was excited. I mean, I was excited. I wanted to watch. And I'm not attracted to women, at least as far as I know.
The inmates went wild. The girl started swaying and then shimmying, and then shaking side to side. Her nipples were huge and dark, nearly black in the twilight.
I don't know if she didn't hear it above the prisoners' thundering feet and hands. Or maybe she just didn't care when the parking security car drove up the ramp behind her. Instead of turning around, she dropped her head back and threw her arms into the air, like she'd just walked a tightrope, ta da!
That's when our supervisor Marva hustled in and dropped the blinds. "Show's over," she barked. "Back to work."
We had a deadline. Otherwise, I'm not sure she'd have cared.
So I found my place on the list of randomly selected phone numbers. As I dialed the next household, I could still hear the yowling and stomping. Somewhere in the distance there was a siren. The screech of the next train grew louder as it rounded the bend from Wabash, heading west onto Van Buren. Just about the time I launched into my next poll, the front car was barreling along the tracks, passing the parking lot and chewing up the silver sequined bra dangling over the rails.
(originally published in the Salt River Review, James Cervantes, editor)