Tuesday, March 27, 2012

a Russian Mary Kay story.

In the not-so-distant past, I lived in Minneapolis. I moved there for a number of reasons, the primary one being that I was too broke to stay in New Orleans. Relocating to Minneapolis would mean being closer to my family and friends, having affordable housing by moving in with James as he student-taught near the cities, and completing my third and final museum internship.

Upon my arrival in Minneapolis, I did have one job waiting for me: my incredibly handy clothing store job. Since I worked for a national chain, all I had to do was request a transfer from one store to the next. I had been hired in Denver and had transferred to New Orleans from there; then, from New Orleans to Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, my clothing store job in Minneapolis ended up being incredibly part-time. While in Denver, I had worked during back-to-school season; in New Orleans, it was Black Friday and Christmas shopping. However, it was January when I got to Minneapolis, and there were no big shopping events on the horizon. I was lucky to get one or two shifts a week. And let me tell you, one or two shifts a week on minimum wage just wasn’t going to cut it.

Feverishly, I searched for an additional job. This was a great deal harder than you might think: my internship required a minimum of twenty hours a week, so my new job had to be able to work around that. Most mainstream part-time jobs wouldn’t want to deal with that: jobs were scarce, and there were plenty of people with better availability than me. So I turned to the dark side.

And by the dark side, I mean Craigslist. Craigslist jobs tended to be a little on the odd side; not something you’d necessarily see in the Star Tribune classifieds. Frankly, that’s exactly what I needed: the more off-beat a job was, the more willing they would be to work with my schedule.

It didn’t take long before I got not one, not two, but THREE interviews for jobs I’d applied for on Craigslist. The first interview was at a facility that hosted consumer panels, and I was offered the job on the spot. They were not sure how many hours a week I would be working, so I forged ahead with the two other interviews. The second interview was at an interpreting agency where I would help recruit medical interpreters. I got this job as well (and would stay with this company for a year and a half). Even with three jobs and an internship, I thought that there may be room for one more. You can always use more money, right? That brings me to my final Craigslist interview (and what this story is ultimately about).

The first two job interviews had been in actual office buildings, which began to restore my faith in Craigslist after my New Orleans Craigslist landlord disaster. However, this last interview was a step backwards, to say the least. The title of the position was something like “customer service assistant,” and the Russian woman I spoke with on the phone was fairly vague about what the job actually was. The interview was on a Friday in February; there was a music educators’ convention that same weekend, so James and I going to head downtown immediately after my interview to meet our music teacher friends.

As James and I looked for this mysterious address, we found ourselves in the middle of residential suburbia: not a good sign. “Are you SURE you got the address right?” said James, wondering if he’d ever see me alive again. I was pretty sure I’d written it down correctly. We came to a stop in front of a shabby little house that matched the address on my scrap of paper. “What if you just skipped the interview?” said James hopefully. “You have three jobs already!” No, I had to go. It would be rude to stand the Russian lady up, after all. I had no idea how long the interview would last, so James said he’d come back in twenty minutes. “If you’re not out of that house in one hour, I’m coming in,” said James valiantly.

With that, I ascended the cracked concrete stairs up to the front door. Apprehensively, I rang the doorbell. Almost immediately, the door opened, and I was greeted by a heavily made-up Russian woman named Tatiana. She enthusiastically invited me into her house, which was incredibly warm and smelled of stew meat. Tatiana sat me down on her striped couch, and she propped her slippered feet up on the coffee table.  “Tell me all about yourself,” Tatiana directed in her heavy accent. I gave her a quick run-through of my education and my customer service-related work history. “Ok, ok,” she said impatiently. “Now tell me this: do you like makeup?” Do I like makeup? What kind of question was that for a job interview? I hesitantly answered, “Yes… ?” Tatiana looked pleased. “Good,” she said. After she went on for a while about the “transformative powers of makeup,” Tatiana said abruptly, “How much do you know about Mary Kay?”

It took nearly everything I have in me not to get up and leave right then. There was no way that I was going to sell Mary Kay. I’m sure the products are great, but I’ve never been an independent sales kind of gal. I told Tatiana that I’d never tried any Mary Kay products, nor had I ever sold any. Tatiana then launched into an epic tale about how she has a PhD in physics, but she was never TRULY happy until she quit her job as a professor and began selling Mary Kay.

That was all lovely, but finally, I had to ask: what exactly would my job BE? Tatiana explained that she had a list of brides-to-be, and I was to call them and tell them that they had “won” a facial and – lucky them! – they could bring as many friends as they would like. I quickly realized that it was just a thinly-veiled plot to scrape up some Mary Kay customers.

That was the end of part one of my interview. Yes: it was a two-parter. Tatiana asked me to meet her at a nursing home next week: she was hosting a Mary Kay get-together, and she would like to give me a “makeover” so I would know just what it was that I was pitching to the unsuspecting brides. Apparently, I had to “pass” the makeover to get the job. I didn’t particularly WANT the job, but without question, could make good use of the extra money. I agreed to get made-over the following week.

I informed James and my parents of my interview, and all of them were fairly certain that I was about to be sold into white slavery. I assured them that it was nothing like that; I was just helping out a busy Mary Kay woman. It would be fine.

The next week, I went to the nursing home to get my makeover. I was greeted by a very enthusiastic Tatiana, who sat me down and had me watch a video about Mary Kay herself. Let me tell you, it was captivating (insert sarcasm). When the video was over, I found that several other women had arrived. It turned out that Tatiana was the leader of some sort of sales team, and these women were the sales representatives. The arrival of these women heralded the beginning of my makeover, which mostly consisted of them squirting moisturizer on a paper plate and having me pick out eyeshadow samples. Believe it or not, the best was yet to come: Mary Kay trivia. Tatiana and her sales reps quizzed me on factoids from the documentary, and for every question I got right, I got a letter: if I got enough letters to spell “beautiful,” I won a fabulous prize. I lost the game (can you blame me?), but I still got a handful of consolation prizes: body spray, a makeup bag, and gold eyeliner. Classy.

Tatiana spent the rest of the evening trying to convince me to ditch this customer service job and become a member of the sales representative team instead. For just the cost of a sales starter kit, I could be well on my way to fame and fortune – and that elusive pink Cadillac. 
I politely declined, saying that I’d rather have the customer service job. Tatiana promptly asked me when I could start (but instructed me to keep the possibility of being a sales representative in mind).

So I had the job. All the work would be performed at her house, I learned on my first day. Tatiana asked me to work from 6pm to 9pm on my first day. I had to come straight from an eight-hour day at the museum, so I distinctly remember trying not to starve during this initial “shift.” This first shift was to be a training session, and I would find out exactly how shady this whole operation was.

Tatiana appeared with a multi-page spreadsheet of names, phone numbers, and locations. The names were of all the brides-to-be. I had to wonder where she had gotten all these names. Tatiana must’ve read my mind: all these brides had signed up on some sort of bridal registry, like David’s Bridal. Apparently, on the registration form, there’s some fine print that says the bride consents to be contacted by outside vendors if she does NOT check a certain box.

Right off the bat, this gave me sort of a bad feeling. My feeling worsened when I heard Tatiana go through the first call. She gave me an elaborate script so I could follow along. The whole thing was just disgusting. Tatiana’s written introduction went like this: “Have you ever won anything in your life?” Yes, I was supposed to ask this and be totally serious. Then, “How would you feel if I told you that you won a FREE BRIDAL FACIAL?!” At this point, most of the brides hung up (and I don’t blame them for a second). Every now and again, though, someone took the bait. If she did, it was up to me to schedule an appointment in Tatiana’s giant Mary Kay appointment book.

I spent those first three hours listening to Tatiana sweet talk potential customers. She didn’t book very many appointments, but I got the gist of it. During my next shift, Tatiana listened in on my phone calls to brides. I don’t remember if I got any appointments or not, but Tatiana was very pleased with my “phone personality.” She only listened in for an hour or so, and then she left me to myself. I flipped through the spreadsheet, making sure that there was no one I knew on the list. I was supposed to keep track of what day and what time I called and if I got a voicemail. If I spoke to a person, I needed to note what they said and if they were hostile. Tatiana had several other women doing the same tasks as me, and there were several notes saying things mostly along the lines of “called me a bitch and told me never to call again.” This was clearly a dream job.

Slowly, I made the calls, and I hated every second of it. By the time my next shift rolled around, I had already begun to leave fake voicemails (aka not actually call the person, but go through the voicemail script aloud to myself) and skim through large chunks of the page. On my first day, Tatiana had made it sound like I would be doing more than just phone calls: I’d help with inventory, mailings, and whatever else needed to be done. Unfortunately, it became clear that I would be doing phone calls, phone calls, and more phone calls. During my short tenure, there was one day when Tatiana had me spend half an hour rearranging her lipstick cabinet. I was almost enjoying myself when she screeched, “Enough! Time to get back to the phone.”

It took me about two shifts to decide that I needed to quit this job. I felt like such a slimeball trying to convince these women that they’d “won” something. Many of them reacted with mild confusion: “I never entered a drawing for anything.” I did have some swear at me, and I did book an appointment or two – but I definitely didn’t feel good about it. I know, it’s just Mary Kay: you actually can go to one of those facials and not have to buy anything. Even so, attempting to coerce unsuspecting women into the hands of Tatiana was not worth the eight dollars an hour.

I don’t remember how many shifts I completed for Tatiana: it couldn’t have been more than four. At the end of the week, she asked me when I could come in again. I told her I had a busy schedule (which was true) and that I’d get back to her. I never did. I know that it would’ve been the grown-up thing to just quit right then and there, but she was a lot bigger and scarier than me. If you were trapped in the house of a terrifying Russian woman with a temper (I often would hear her screaming at her husband while I made my phone calls), you’d cop out, too.

So that’s the story of my short-lived job as a Mary Kay cold-caller. I hope you gathered two things from this story: 1.) if you’re getting married, read the fine print, and 2.) never trust Craigslist. One of these times, I’ll tell you about my other two Minneapolis Craigslist jobs. In the meantime, if someone calls you and tells you you’ve won a free facial, hang up immediately.

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