Suburban Soliloquy #40

I use Microsoft's Outlook Express for my email. This program allows you to block uninvited, commercial email, meaning spam. To date, I have over 850 blocked addresses, most of those are entire domains; nevertheless, I still receive six to a dozen new pieces of spam into my account every day. My email is inundated with invitations to check out pornography, to try out virtual casinos, to take out loans, to complete a University Diploma - I get this last one almost daily. This is not market targeting. It signifies that the Internet makes it easy for these unscrupulous and uncaring swindlers to annoy a quarter of a million people to find that one sucker from whom they can profit by cheating. Spam disgusts me, I curse it, but it is a simple enough thing to delete.

Telemarketers are harder to ignore. These are people who employ the telephone to sell you, unsolicited, a product or a service. More than nine out of ten calls we receive are from telemarketers. It has made the possession of an answering machine a necessity. Even with our answering machine, which answers the telephone, "You have reached the edge of Oblivion, please leave a message," we still receive almost a dozen such calls daily. We were in the habit of never answering the telephone, but would listen to the messages as they were being recorded, screening the calls. Often they ask for me by name. It alarms me that they already know my name, already have my address. They call to offer me lower interest rates on credit cards, or protection for a credit card I already own, or to move my home equity loan to their agency, or treat my lawn, or install vinyl siding, or change my long distance carrier.

Well, some weeks ago I had changed my tack. If I should be at home, awake, and not busy, I have taken to answering the telephone and chatting with the telemarketers. I let them speak first. When they have concluded their spiel, or have talked what I feel is long enough, I tell them I cannot afford whatever product or service they are selling. Then I give them my spiel, telling them how they can help me out by buying my book of short stories. They already have my name in front of them. I tell them the title of my book and let them know they can order it on the net or from most any bookstore. Surprisingly, eight of ten of them suggest they will. They usually conclude the call with a cheery voice and I often get them to laugh. I have no idea if any of them actually buy my book, but they certainly finished the conversation sounding amendable to the idea. Meanwhile, I feel better that they called. The telemarketers I formerly cursed have become for me an opportunity knocking at my door, or rather ringing at my phone. Then it happened that the other day I had just such a call, but it took a strange twist. It began with a pleasant fellow, albeit sounding bored, who was trying to sell me an alarm system for my house. As has now become my habit, I responded by trying to sell him my book. He retaliated by asking me to buy his book!!!

It seems this fellow claimed he was a poet who has published under the pseudonym, Robert Louthan. Mr Louthan, whose real name was never volunteered, said he had a book published with the University of Pittsburgh Press, the title of his book being Living in Code. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he wasn't forthcoming. He quickly reverted to pressuring me into buying an alarm system. I told him I wasn't interested. Mr Louthan left me with the distinct feeling that he wasn't buying my book, but then I probably left him with the same impression, the tone of my voice revealing I had no such intention. He sounded quite angry with me by the call's conclusion.

No sooner had I hung up the telephone, than guided by curiosity I was searching the web for any information I could find about this Robert Louthan. There was such a person and he did publish poetry nearly twenty years ago. You can no longer buy his book, Living in Code, which was published in 1983. It is out of print. I found a few used copies, but they were too expensive for poetry I might not like. I found an earlier book, Shrunken Planets. It was published by Alice James Books in 1980, an affiliate of the University of Maine at Farmington. The book appears to still be available from the publisher, and at $3.95 it isn't an expensive proposition. There were some interesting reviewer comments for the book:

"Robert Louthan's poems are simple and strange. They speak the plain speech of dreams, and are quietly but firmly committed to that kind of order." -John Ashbery

"Here is a disturbing voice." -The Boston Sunday Globe

"Louthan's world contains the most frightening features of our
-Mid-American Review

Still, I was not prepared to spend even this small amount. My rationale, at the time, was that any poet who could stoop to take a job as a telemarketer just couldn't be possessed of the compassion necessary to compose poetry. My opinion was poisoned by the disdain with which I hold telemarketing.

Later, discussing this incident with a group of friends and acquaintances, I learned that some of them had telemarketing experiences. I feel I owe an apology, or at least half an apology. It was evidently wrong of me, I see now, to have accused the poor poet who called me to sell me a home alarm system, as lacking compassion. All he probably lacked was income. I regretted my earlier stance about this poor fellow, probably desperate to pay bills. To think, twenty years ago Robert Louthan was publishing in The Paris Review [issue # 78 - Summer 1980 and issue # 94 - Winter 1984] and now he must prostitute his language skills to selling a product and service which probably doesn't hold his heart. Perhaps he has children. More victim than me, he must be at his servitude eight hours a day while I only had to be on the telephone for less than two minutes. But I still damn to hell the people who are exploiting him to annoy me.

I formerly found telemarketers to be more annoying than those foul-smelling and disagreeable looking unfortunates who interrupt my passage on the street to tell a lie for the sake of preserving their addictions. I feel differently, now. Telemarketers are less intrusive; either I don't answer the telephone or I approach it with an attitude of profiting myself from it, something I cannot do with those certain folks who block my path.

What successful artist isn't a huckster? The next day, after my telephone conversation with Mr Robert Louthan, I went to the local library and requested his book, Living in Code, through the interlibrary loan system.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fortieth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
For further reading, Mr Bentzman's book "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman" is available from Amazon.