The Chimney Sweeps

Does your flue need cleaning?I once worked as a telemarketer for a chimney sweeps. You know, those guys who climb up on the roof and stick long extension poles down your chimney to clean out raccoon nests and debris that has settled there over the winter. This particular chimney sweep I worked for happened to be run by the mob, or at least the wanna-be mafia. The story goes something like this:

My friends and I were looking for summer jobs when one of us found a small help wanted ad in the local penny-saver newspaper. He took the job first, and by recommendation, myself and one other friend were snatched up. There I joined several other young people, both men and women, in a small dingy room in an unmarked store front. There was a whiteboard on one wall keeping score. We spent our days running through the phone book, every number, down the line, calling people ceaselessly. Most people, as you can assume, hung up on us. But (and this wasn’t my life’s proudest moment) sometimes we got a lonely old woman who accepted our offer because we convinced her it was a good idea. Or it was the timid, middle-aged man who agreed to our “safety check” because we scared him into it. Fireplaces, after all, can be dangerous things.

The spiel went something like this: “Hello Sir. I’m calling from your local chimney sweep. Did you know your chimney is due for a cleaning? Did you know that animals can make nests in your chimney? Did you know leaves and other debris can fall in over the summer? All that stuff gets trapped and is a very dangerous fire hazard. We’ll just come by and check it out to make sure everything is safe. Our team has the latest equipment. We come with long extension poles [!] and sweep the flue pipes clean.” I wasn’t even sure what those things were. And, only if they’d ask: “A routine visit is just fifty bucks.”

At this point the potential client has either hung up, is screaming about how you interrupted their only five minutes of peace and dinnertime with their family (telemarketers always call during dinner because that’s when the most people are home), or, in about one call in fifty, they begin to ask you questions. Questions get your blood pumping. This means they are at least intrigued. Then you have to put on your best salesman shoes and start your spiel. This was a real adrenaline booster, especially if you finally got a “lead,” that is, someone who agreed to a chimney-checking visit. Your name went up on the board for all to see and envy. The rule was that in the first week you had to make two leads or that was it, you were fired. Somehow, as shy as I was back then, I managed to convince two people they needed their chimneys checked. My friend (not the one who got us the job) was not so lucky. He was too shy or too nice and made one meager lead which had as a supposition that the client wouldn’t be charged for the checkup. Of course the owners weren’t happy with this. They fired him at the end of the first week, told me to drive him home in the middle of my shift, and also told me I wouldn’t get paid for my time to drive him home. I quit on the spot, halfway through my second week.

What I also didn’t mention is that while we were on the phone, this strung-out and leather-skinned young woman sat at a big desk facing us like our school teacher and directed us and coached us in this kind of pathetic way that someone who has no clue and experience tries to direct people who don’t really care to learn. She was actually pretty good at getting leads herself, but she spent most of her time doing her nails and disappearing into this private room in the back where we all just assumed she was doing lines of coke or smoking joints or something else. Nothing else made much sense. She would disappear for forty minutes or more of the two hour shifts and then come back all smiley and bleary-eyed and be totally useless and bitchy for the rest of the shift, sometimes telling us off if we lost a lead. Anyway, behind her desk was this huge one-way mirror where we all assumed we were being watched, though we seldom saw anyone come out from behind it.

I also neglected to mention that midway through my two week stint at this company an article came out in our major regional newspaper lambasting this self-same company I had been working for, for supposedly cheating their customers out of thousands of dollars. The scam went like this: (1) telemarketers (read, me) convince customers they need their chimneys checked for hazards. (2) Chimney sweepers arrive and “check” the customer’s chimney, finding it “unsafe” and in need of major “repair.” (3) Usually without asking permission the sweepers would knock down half the chimney, then build it up again, same as before. (4) This job, which should have cost the customer $50 for the sweep now ends up costing them $1500 or more.

Anyway, this strung-out woman behind the desk told us in that second week through her hoarse voice that the article was a complete fabrication and based on false accusations, and well, she just emphatically denied it, and we were also told to deny it completely to any potential customer who asked (if they did, most hadn’t read the article), and we were to say that the article was written about some other company and not us. Needless to say, my moral flags went up, but I was young and adventurous, and, I have to be completely honest, I got more than a little thrill about being part of something so obviously wrong. It’s a bit like stealing candy from a store or sneaking out of class, but this was just a yeah-bit bigger, and well, I just didn’t know enough about the world yet to really understand how fucked up and morally wrong this really was. Or maybe I just didn’t care.

So, anyway, I now have quit and still haven’t received a dime for the two weeks I worked. I call them repeatedly over the next couple of weeks. “We’re just waiting for the money to come in,” she told me over and over again. “Call back tomorrow.” I started to tell friends and family. My cousin, in all good intentions, perhaps not understanding (nor did I) the extent or the ramifications of their operation, told me to get tough and threaten to take them to court if they didn’t pay me. I think they owed me like $45. A petty amount, but at that age, being scammed out of $45 is like losing a leg. So I called them and I threatened.

“We’ll call you back,” she said.

One minute and seventeen seconds later, the phone rings. Someone else. A man. “Come now. We have your money.”

Okay, I thought, that wasn’t so hard. I hop in my car and drive the ten minutes to the office. The front room, where we made our calls, is unoccupied. I slip into the back, the private room I had never been to, with the big one-way mirror, and standing there, wearing identical black t-shirts, black belts, black jeans, and black shoes are eight huge men. Huge in the sense of having eaten one too-many pasta fazoolis, but also huge from having worked out more than twice a week.

“Hello,” I said.

No one says anything back. One of them, the biggest, I mean, this guy’s like a bear, grabs me with his huge arm and drags me — drags me — so that my feet are scraping along the floor, to the back of the shop, some little alley where there are piles of garbage and a big dumpster, and there he says something like:

“We’re a big family around here. We don’t talk about court around here. Okay, buddy? Okay Mark? This is a family business. You know family, don’t you?”

And he says this real friendly like, you know, as if we’re old pals from way-back, his voice all soothing and weird, like you want to like him if it wasn’t for what he was saying. And all the while he’s squeezing me just a bit too hard, and my feet still haven’t touched the floor. Then he lets go and leads me back inside.

I walk back inside with my ankle now sore because it had slammed into some metal as he dragged me outside, and the seven remaining goombas are standing around the desk staring at me. In the middle of the empty desk is a white envelope. One of them hands it to me. I say thank you, but no one speaks as I exit the room.

I was shaking as I left, but I couldn’t help but smile. I mean, what was all the fanfare for? I wasn’t Don Corleone threatening fifty thousand beans or a worker strike. This was $45. Did they really think some 18 year old kid who took a crappy job so he could pay for beer and cigarettes on weekends without having to ask his parents for cash was really going to bring their organization down? Did they think that $45 was such a big sum that they had to assemble all their goons to scare me into silence? Over $45?! I limped back to my car, smiling.

The storefront closed down a few months later, and I never heard from them again, though one of my friends remained in contact with the strung-out woman, working for her in some other questionable business for a few months. When I finally got to my car that day and opened the envelope, I found it contained only $35, in fives and mostly singles. I decided it best not to worry about the missing $10. I think I got my money’s worth.