This season, a perfect storm of stimuli informed this column. My daughter Emily gave me a book for Christmas by Jessica Mitford called “Poison Penmanship, The Gentle Art of Muckraking.” In addition to this, I read snatches of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on Theodore Roosevelt, “Bully Pulpit.” Roosevelt did not like writers who exposed corruption — muckrakers. Moreover, I saw the new movie, “American Hustle.” (The title foreshadows where all this is going.) This is not how my scribbling normally goes; however, we grab topics when they come winging by — it is what we do.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Muckrake generally refers to what is morally unsavory or scandalous.” Today, we call this Tabloid Journalism, but muckraking is the perfect word as we hover over our nouns and verbs. The visual of the word connotes something slimy and dark, encasing little creatures that go bleep in the deep. It is not a happy word. It is a word we do not want associated with our name. In a writer’s parlance, it is not a laudatory term; it is derogatory. Let me proceed to fill up a rake full of muck from the year 1972.
At the age of 22, I found myself working for a very sketchy operation housed in a nondescript and anonymous 10-story building in Virginia — right next to the Pentagon. Unbeknownst to me at that time, this operation was referred to as a “Boiler Room.” It was the only gig to be had, and it was a short bike ride from my place — a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do. My job was to sit in a cubicle and cold call people to try and interest them in a “wonderful community” — land 30 miles southwest of Washington. There were about 30 cubicled people from all walks of life, but mostly students.
We “smiled and dialed,” trying to ratchet up our hourly rate in the following way. We made our pitch while two chain-smoking guys with long hair and bellbottoms monitored our calls from an isolation booth — these guys were not about “Peace and Love.” They were about saturating the D. C., area with incessant noxious phone calls and getting a salesman into people’s homes. Part of the pitch was giving folks a free steak dinner at Emerson’s Steak House and free movie tickets. Deal! If we got a salesman into the house, two more dollars got tacked to your hourly rate. If the salesman actually got the folks to the “wonderful community, with tennis courts and a man-made lake,” you got an extra bonus of five scoots! Punch, pitch and smile through the phone to the prospect, or mark; this got very old after a few hours of a five-hour shift.
The night I got the boot is branded in my memory bank. I remember on that particular shift, a guy in the cubicle next to me sounded weary and defeated. He pitched with his head down and no enthusiasm; the bellbottom guys took note with severe consternation on their strained countenances. Conversely, the guy on the other side of me sounded like Don Imus and wore a suit to the gig. He was the gold standard. The bellbottom guys loved him. Furthermore, they honored this guy with a bottle of champagne that night. I punched in a number from my coded, outlined and annotated phone book, and lowered my voice for my pitch. “Good evening, Ma’am,” I twanged.
The lady sounded amiable at first, and then she went snarky on me. I expertly rambled on about the steak dinner, movie and land! “Oh, this land, Joe, have you been there, how deep is the lake?” the lady asked. (The bellbottom guys zeroed in on my cubicle — intensely puffing.)
“Um, ah, no ma’am,” I said.
“Well, how can you say it’s beautiful?” she asked.
Now both bellbottom guys in the booth were standing and motioning for me to hang up as they puffed on their Camels. I figured, I’ll go big and go home, and then launched into this little monologue that all my fellow boiler roomers could hear; everyone stopped “smiling and dialing.” “No ma’am, I’ve never been there, and don’t care to go there. See, if I get a salesman to visit you and he takes you down to the shore, then I hit pay dirt, but that ain’t happening because I’m about to get fired. There are two guys trying to get me to hang up, but I won’t. I’m just a guy trying to make some money for college, but this is a tough town, as I’m sure you know.” As the guys in the booth came out to physically take the phone from me, the lady was asking me what I was studying in college, and where I was from, yada, yada, yada. “Theatre,” and “Rhode Island,” were the last words I said as the phone was cradled by the Camel-puffing, longhaired, bellbottomed, boiler room bosses.
That year, Congress did a crackdown on this type of phone solicitation. This shady kind of operation could vanish overnight, and in some cases they did. This company looked pretty legit to a 22-year old guy who was in need of some money. But it was a scam. I found out later that the lake was about four inches deep that summer, and there were no tennis courts to be seen. The Washington Post and The New York Times ran extensive stories on similar land development scams. In some cases people were bilked into buying property in Florida that didn’t even exist — there wasn’t even any muck to rake.
Thank heavens for dogged reporters and freedom of speech!