Talk America | George Prochnik | Granta

Talk America

George Prochnik

By the time I left Jerusalem at the end of the 1990s, I’d run out of cash and seen my personal debt ceiling collapse. For years I’d gotten by with piecework verbal peddling, teaching in different capacities and writing occasional pieces of cultural journalism. Only I hadn’t really gotten by, since I kept having to borrow to survive, and so kept falling further behind. One of the understandings I reached with my family about coming back to America was that I would henceforth give up the aspiration that the writing I so cared about could support me economically, and would set about finding a ‘real job’ – something I’d managed to avoid doing well into my thirties, even if I did continually labor at a motley array of not-real jobs.

Of course, I dreaded the prospect. But I was also sick to death of scrounging, and confronting the reality over and over that what I earned didn’t quite add up to what I needed for rent, food and so on. I’d had enough of beating my brains out trying to solve the puzzle of how to earn a living without compromising my values or exhausting my energies for writing creatively. I had young children. It was time to act like a grown-up, even though I’d never really bought into the idea that maturity and regular, salaried employment were synonymous.

Nonetheless, I would get a full-time job, and I’d write what I liked in the interstices, the way other artistic people did when they took their real-world responsibilities seriously. What exactly would I do? Well, it seemed clear to me I’d find work writing for somebody else. Some person or entity with a bank account. Working every day for a newspaper or magazine, presumably, or perhaps with a book publisher.

Several months after returning, having fruitlessly pursued countless leads in publishing and at not-for-profits, I was still unemployed. Without retracing the long, painful convolutions of my efforts to find work, I will say only that at the end of the fall I finally ended up being hired for $8.50 an hour by the customer service call center of Talk America: an infomercial marketer of products like Protein Power Package and of supplements for reversing the effects of male pattern baldness – of colon cleansers, brain builders, miracle diets, youth restorers, romance finders, moneymakers and other all-around fate transformers. Talk America! And tickety-tock, America talked to me. I sat in Portland, Maine, at a tiny desk in a big fluorescent crossword puzzle of a room, taking call after call after call, the script for most of which went something like this:

‘Hi, this is George at Talk America, how can I help you today?’

‘You fucking liars! I got your Super Body Ultra Reboot machine and it’s just a bunch of fucking broken plastic and springs with a bullshit video of some asshole lifting shit!’

‘I’m very sorry if you’re disappointed with the product, sir. It’s been endorsed as you know by many of the world’s top super body –’

‘You get my money back overnight or you’ll be sorry motherfucker –’

‘We’re happy to refund you your money, sir, if you’re disappointed with our product, though we’re very sorry to hear it. Are you sure you practiced the technique exactly as Buddy Beef Bronzer the Human Muscle Dump demonstrates?’

(Inchoate, gore-spattered screaming.)

‘Okay, well then, we can get the refund process started right away upon receipt of the merchandise, sir. It usually takes a few weeks until the next check printing, but –’

‘YOU GET ME my FUCKING money tomorrow morning!’

‘We’re happy to provide you with a full refund just as soon as we receive back the super-builder product, at which point the refund can be processed – minus the $19.95 shipping and handling fee from our end . . .’

That was the point in the narrative at which I winced and braced, the part that always spelled the start of real trouble. It was when the person whose body had not undergone an Olympian reinvigoration in a few weeks – whose brain had not yet hit trans-Einstein levels, who was still getting older, heavier, more drained, flaccid, broke, bald, clogged and isolated – learned that the shipping and handling fees, on a box of junky bits one might feel annoyed by if it came as a bonus gift with a piece of gum from a vending machine, cost practically as much as the product itself, that conversation broke down altogether.

‘You know what I’m doing right now?’

‘No sir. Shall I indicate then that we should be expecting the return of your –’

‘I’m loading my guns in the back of my truck. I’m going to start driving tonight. I’ll be at your fucking offices in fourteen hours and I’ll blow all y’all’s fucking heads off.’

‘I’m sorry you’re disappointed with the product, sir.’

‘Blow your fucking brains out! All over the walls! You cocksucking, motherfuh—’

Well, it made a change from teaching Keats and Shakespeare to gifted, eager classes of Israeli and Palestinian students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

I know the call sounds exaggerated, but I swear I received death threats in language almost identical to what I’ve just transcribed. And even short of people saying they would kill me, which did happen – twice – the rage and despair I listened to each day was monumental. I never questioned people’s right to a refund. I never said much beyond vowing that I would do everything I could to expedite their refund, trying to calm them down, and then taking off my headset, leaving my desk, and begging my superiors to help the worst victims. Far more upsetting than the murderous dupes were the people who just broke down sobbing at the failure of their Talk America product, as seen on TV, to have redeemed one single aspect of their tragic existence.

George Prochnik

George Prochnik was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in general non-fiction in 2021. He has written for publications such as the New Yorker and the LA Review of Books, and is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine. 'Talk America' is an edited excerpt from I Dream with Open Eyes, forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. His books with Granta include Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem, which was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize and was a New York Times 'Editor's Choice'.

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