It's a bright, sunny, February afternoon and I am dressed for business. I'm walking up to a large office rental building (one of the many nearby) and, spotting the small HealthMarkets sign I'm looking for, I skip up to the cement steps leading to the door. I make it about halfway up perfectly and finish the rest with a less-than-graceful trip and sprawling fall. Quickly looking around I check to see if anyone spotted my failed acrobatics and confirm that, at least for these few moments, my dignity is safe. When I grab my briefcase (note: actually a sort of laptop bag), I notice my hands are shaking. This is very unusual for me - though I may be screaming in nervous terror within, I've developed over the years the composure necessary to beat and subdue that little demon to a quiet whimper. But then, maybe today is different because I have a feeling that I know how this is going to end. I take a moment to shake out my hands, chastising their misbehavior, and open the door.
It's no secret the economy has been less than terrific of late. And of course it was just my luck that I found myself graduated and dropped directly into it with an English degree and no teaching certification of any kind. It's not that I really wanted to teach, it's just that the companies that hired for the things I did want to do (stunt car driving, writing for a big newspaper, working for a trendy and relaxed web company) weren't terribly interested in someone of my level of "experience and expertise". So I slowly and steadily began aiming lower and lower in my job hunt. Until finally, I was rejected Radio Shack. And then Circuit City*. Then Best Buy. Then a janitorial position at the nearby hospital. This was how I knew I was screwed if I didn't get lucky soon. So one day I'm redoing all my online job profiles and updating the resumes, knowing that during the first few days I'm going to get computer automated offers with my name awkwardly wedged into a block of text to schedule an "interview" with one of their "representatives" at some nearby hotel. Sure enough, on the first day, I get essentially the same letter from three different companies. Deleted. The second day, the same. Then I get a phone call. From a live person.
"Hi, is this Jonathan?"
"Yes," reply I, not knowing what I had just done
"Hi, this is Sue** from HealthMarkets. I know this is last minute, but I'd like you to come in for an interview with our manager, Bob**, but he only has time for tomorrow - if not, I can schedule you for next week."
"Hot dog!" I think "they must really want me!"
I tell her I can make it, say goodbye, and whistle as I start to get my business attire together for the following day.
I'm staring at an empty and nearly barren waiting room. The walls are covered with those cheesy inspirational posters you're not actually supposed to ever see in a real workplace. I count eight of them in this room, nodding at Teamwork - its a photo of a group of rock climbers holding on to a single rope as they make their way up a rocky incline in front of a backdrop of red and orange sunset. I note the lack of inspiration welling up within me. I am however, becoming ever more sure that this is a waste of my time. What little furnishings exist in this clearly rented space are temporary and cheap. In my head, I estimate it would take about two hours to pack up this entire operation. And that leaves time for lunch.
I can't see or hear anyone. I call out a "hello?" and a short, older woman greets me. This is Sue, who I talked with on the phone. She seems sweet and I immediately rescind my earlier judgment about this being a waste of my time. She chats with me for a short while before leading me down a hall toward the "meeting room". As I progress deeper into the bowels of this complex, I notice the extraordinary abundance of eagle trophies. While it may not immediately occur to you, you likely know exactly what I'm talking about. A simple, yet somewhat costly-looking, glass or metal statuette of an eagle, often in a diving pose, mounted onto a wooden base with a simple plaque etched with whatever you've paid for it to read. Sometimes the eagles are diving, sometimes they are flying upward with their wings outstretched. Sometimes if you're lucky, the trophy will have two eagles soaring together. At the end of the hall, there's a large wooden case with about 13 of these. They appear to have obtained the entire collection.
I had looked up HealthMarkets on Google after making my appointment and was immediately greeted with negative consumer reports and news articles about lawsuits and fraud. I knew that this was probably the sort of thing I wanted to cancel my appointment for. I was being drawn into a scam, or at best, a company with shady business practices. But, being naive and desperate for work as I was, I decided I would go anyway, on the off chance that my impressions were wrong. After all, as long as they could pay me, I wasn't going to be terribly picky.
I'm sitting in a presentation room with about 30 chairs, all lined up in rows with small, collapsible tables in front of them. I've been introduced to "Flavio" (also not his real name for reasons which will become apparent), another potential employee who has apparently, also been invited to my interview. Looking about the room, I notice an abundance of white boards mounted on the walls, though only a few are actually being used. One has a chart of what is presumably the sales of all the staff for this branch of HealthMarkets. Still, there is no sign of anyone in this building other than me, Flavio, and Sue. I consider again how surprisingly quiet it is for a sales company, made additionally awkward by the very deliberate silence between me and Flavio, who looks like he is wondering when I am going to start interviewing him. Eventually, Bob the manager comes in and shakes our hands. I can immediately tell that he is preparing to sell us something and I rescind my earlier rescission about my wasted time. He jokes with Flavio about a poster of a "company resort" on the wall behind us and talks about how all the managers get to visit the island and go on a "booze-cruise" all day. Finally, he stands at the front of the room before us and begins his pitch. It is well rehearsed and definitely scripted, as he occasionally pauses to remember something or rambles on ahead during the parts of his speech that he knows. There is something ridiculous about this scene as, despite his insistence that "this business" is "recession-proof", this setup in better times, clearly involved many more potential recruits sitting before him.
He continues to tell us how excellent "this business" is and how much money we can make.
"I have a guy who makes twelve thousand a week. After bonuses and stocks, he takes home over three hundred thousand a year. Now, he's one of our best, but even our average employee can look forward to about sixty to ninety thousand annually."
He tells us that even if we're not good salesman, he'll still take us because he's hiring aggressively.
"It doesn't matter if you're good at this really, you'll still make about thirty-five thousand a year, and that's if you're casual about it. What is important is that you will be comfortable dealing with these people - they're every-day-Joes, and that's who we sell to - not big companies or offices."
He then goes into a story about how flexible the hours are, asking us if we have kids. We both shake our heads.
"Let me tell you a story. My daughter, Maria [he says this slowly, clearly having thought of the name on the spot], she's eight - she loves to play soccer. And she was once asked by a teacher what he father does. You know what she said? She said 'I don't know what my dad does, but I know it means he can come see my games'".
He later tells us, in the course of explaining how his salary has helped mitigate the cost of college tuition, that his two daughters are in their twenties. He goes on to tell other stories, one about his friend who started working for the company ten years before he himself did (Bob was hesitant at the time) and now that friend is retiring at forty-five years old and man, what a mistake it was to pass up that first opportunity.
Bob starts to wrap things up by explaining that all of this doesn't even factor in yearly bonuses or stock profits. As he talks more and more, I look to Flavio who is respectively, salivating more and more. He is hooked on this proposition, and totally sold. I am looking over for what has to be the sixth time, at Flavio's expression of sheer ecstasy, when Bob drops the bomb, trying to make it as quick as possible.
"Now I don't want to mislead you guys, there's a process we have to put you through before you start. We do a very deep and thorough background check on every employee, and since it would be a conflict of interest for us to pay for that, we need you to. Also, we train all our employees so that when they come out of training, they are certified sales representatives. This costs about two hundred dollars, but that gives you access to all the online materials and practice tests - then you just take the final test and you're set. You will need the books though - I don't know how much those are but they're something like fifty bucks."
I look to Flavio again. His smile is disintegrating, but still clinging to hope.
"Also, y'know, people come in here expecting to get paid right away, but we do things differently here because we're so concerned about your training and that background check - y'know, it takes about five weeks before we can start getting you trained, but the training only takes a week or two. It sounds like a pain, but we've all done it - even me. And don't forget - after you're trained, all your sales leads are free. So what do you think guys, does that sound alright?"
I nod curtly - my pursed lips and locked glares throughout the presentation surely must have told the manager that I'm a no-sell. When he asks "does that sound alright?", he's asking Flavio.
"Well, I'm-," Flavio stammers "I think it will be fine - I'll need to ask my parents for a loan..."
Bob immediately launches into how that's a great idea and how he himself had to borrow money from his parents to start at the company.
"Y'know, that's what parents are there for - to help you out".
Bob must notice the look of disgust I'm trying to hide because finally, he glances down at his watch and says "Well, it's getting late, I think I'm all set and you guys can go if you don't have any questions."
I bolt up, quickly shake his hand and leave. Behind me I can hear him stop Flavio, and begin to explain again that he really should get the money from his parents to start on this profitable career path. I emerge into the sunlight a grateful man, and congratulate myself for not being a total sucker. Then I realize that it means I still have no job and I walk to my car, slightly more humble.
I've been waiting in my car for about fifteen minutes when I see Flavio exiting the building in my rear-view mirror. I start the engine and pull out, driving up next to him.
"Uh, hey Flavio" I say through my open window
"Hey" he replies
"Look man, I just wanted to let you know - that whole thing is a total scam."
"Oh, really?" he seems genuinely surprised
"Yeah, I'm sorry, it's just that you looked really excited about it and I didn't want you to waste your money. You shouldn't have to pay to work - that's not the right direction of money flow, y'know what I mean?"
"Oh sure. Hey, thanks for the heads up man."
I chat a little longer with him about the pains of finding work in this economy, and then I leave. In a month, the clutch on my car is going to die and I still won't have a job, but right now I don't know that. Right now I'm strangely cheerful as I shift up to fifth gear and drive down the highway toward home.
* Although in retrospect, this one probably made sense as they were soon out of business
** Not their real names