White Voice

“I’m glad I caught you. I don’t normally get on the phone.”

Paul Sietsema, Telephone painting. 2016, enamel on linen. 68 7/8 × 46 1/4
Paul Sietsema, Telephone painting. 2016, enamel on linen. 68 7/8 × 46 1/4". Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. ©Paul Sietsema.

The man on the other end of the line is furious. Last time we came, he says, we left his basement buried in dust. He spent hours cleaning our mess, a process he now describes in detail. “I’m so sorry,” I tell him. “I’d like to do what I can.” I ask him to go to the basement and look at the furnace, where he’ll find a sticker with the names of the technicians who served him.

As soon as he sets down the receiver I know he’s mine. A minute passes, then two. I ready my plan. When he gets back he tells me the names, and I take a beat. “Like I thought,” I say with studied camaraderie, “them. We let them go shortly after that.”

Actually, I’ve never heard of these technicians. I’ll forget their names as soon as I’m off the phone. “Listen.” I sigh. “I feel terrible. Let me do something about it.” I raise the price $30 so I can tell him I’ll take an extra $30 off, in addition to the $40 he’ll save thanks to our fall sale, which will become our winter sale, and then our spring sale. Two minutes later I hang up the phone and spin around in my office chair. “Bling!” I yell to Tuck, the pit boss.

I am 16 years old. I sit at a cubicle—a length of counter separated by planks of plasterboard—in a big, open room in a strip mall in suburban Minneapolis. A boom box plays the local hard rock station, piping in Creed’s late-summer megahit, “Higher.” I’m a telemarketer. I’m not just good at it. I’m magic. A whiteboard above me tallies sales. I’ve been climbing for months.

Tuck exhales a smoke ring that widens as it rises until it bursts against the cloud hanging over us. It’s 1999, and still legal to smoke inside. Outside the pit, everyone’s a teenager, many of them dropouts who don’t usually stick around longer than six weeks. Most of them are knockers: they cold-call from the phone book like low-level salesmen knock on doors, and if anyone’s interested they cover the mouthpiece and yell for a closer. I’m a closer. So is Matt, my band friend, who brought me here from our last job, bagging groceries. So is Bobby Boehmer, who, when he learned I’m Jewish, started calling me Foreskinykin. So is Sawchuk, cowboy handsome, who’s been at the top of the board since I arrived, but whom I’ll beat in a couple of weeks, a conquest that will net me the month’s top prize: a Sega Dreamcast.

When Derek, the big boss, fires me a year from now, I’ll walk outside to my Oldsmobile 88. It has a soft vinyl top and plush bench seats on which I’ll make out with exactly no one. It also has—purchased with my grotesque disposable income—an expensive stereo system, which I use to play Jethro Tull’s prog rock epic of English nostalgia, Thick as a Brick. I’ll exit onto the interstate, and I’ll cry, and I’ll drive.


In 2019, telemarketing isn’t what it used to be. Pick up the phone and you’re likely to hear a friendly android (“Rachel from cardholder services”) selling you credit, or a harsh robot from the fake IRS giving you twenty-four hours before the feds seize your property. I keep winning cruises. Rare is the real human, let alone one who knows how to close.

When I started, the industry was at its zenith. We were living in the world Douglas Samuelson made. In 1986, Samuelson, a telecom analyst, invented predictive dialing, automating cold calls. Now telemarketers could spend fifty-five minutes out of every hour talking to people, up from forty. It was a classic technological squeeze, like Henry Ford’s assembly line or the wristbands that monitor Amazon warehouse workers’ every step.

Suddenly, everyone was getting calls at dinnertime. “Could you excuse us,” my dad would say with rare impatience, before hanging up. “We’re just sitting down to eat.” I’d watch him slam the pastel handset into its cradle, the spiral cord twisting and tangling. Telemarketers were about the worst thing you could be in Minnesota: rude. Which made the profession seductive to a teenage boy with a faulty moral compass and a passion for The Fountainhead.

I wasn’t selling furnace and duct cleaning. I was selling my voice, the fantasy it could embody. I was selling a myth of myself—one I fell for, too. 

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Ninety minutes into our four-hour shifts, Derek—who must have been about 40, average height and weight, thin black hair cut short, red face pitted with acne scars—would emerge from the storage closet he called his office, take a drag from his Marlboro, squint his eyes, and scream, “Spin ’em around!” It was a daily ritual. On days we were selling well, the speeches were short, but on one particularly slow day in June at the end of the millennium, he delivered what would be his masterpiece:

There are two kinds of people in the world. Fuckers and fuckees. Which are you? Are you a fucker? Or are you someone who gets fucked? Look. We’re having a shit day. Tuck, what’s the tally? The tally’s shit. You bastards aren’t selling shit. You say it’s June, no one’s home, no one’s thinking about their furnace. Lemme tell you a secret. You making a sale, it has nothing to do with furnace and duct cleaning. It’s about one thing. Are you a fucker? Or do you bend over for the bitch on the other end of the line and get fucked? You say the sheets are bad, you have a shitty neighborhood. Look. You making a sale, it has nothing to do with who’s on the other end of the line. They own a home, they have a furnace, you make a sale. End of story. It has zero to do with the sheets. It has to do with precisely one thing. Are you a fucker? Or are you a little bitch who gets fucked? You let him hang up on you? You got fucked. You let him check in with his wife? You got fucked. Tell him, does he ask his wife before he mows the lawn? Does he ask her before he jerks off in the basement? Tell him, I’ve got a sweet little opening for Tuesday at three, how’s that? Wanna know a secret? I’ve owned a home for fifteen years. How many times do you think I’ve got my furnace and ductwork cleaned? Sawchuk? Sinykin? Boehmer? How many times? Twice? Fuck you. Zero. Zero times. You think it matters, what we’re selling? You think it matters, the product? The product is shit. Only one thing matters. Those people on the other end of the line, they’re weak. They’re waiting for you. They pick up the phone and there you are. You tell ’em, Here I am. You say, I’ve come for you. You—you—are fuckers. You are fuckers. And you fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck.

He returned to the storage closet and slammed the door. It was so quiet I could hear the friction from the spark wheel of Tuck’s lighter. “Well,” Tuck said. “Back to work.”


Back then I approached the world as if it were full of games whose latent rules I could learn and then master. I dispensed with the script Tuck distributed to new knockers and instead treated calls experimentally, trying on tones and timbres. Voice, in telemarketing, is everything. It is all you are. So I did a Southern accent, Australian, Russian. I aimed for sympathy with a stutter. I played familiar (you and I both know), desperate (you don’t know what they’ll do to me if I can’t close this), sad (my wife has cancer). I pretended to be an adult, even as my sense of adultness was televisual, corroded, strange.

I also listened. Every extra second I could keep someone on the line improved my chance of a sale, so I learned the set of excuses people used at each stage of a call. I learned what triggered hang-ups and developed an arsenal to defeat them. These tactics started from the moment someone answered the phone. If the sheet said Thomas, Anthony, or David, I bet on Tom, Tony, or Dave. “Dave?” I’d say, like I might be a friend. I settled into professional intimacy, easy confidence. “Dave, it’s Dan. From down the road.” I came to realize Derek was right: I wasn’t selling furnace and duct cleaning. I was selling my voice, the fantasy it could embody. I was selling a myth of myself—one I fell for, too.

I had been telemarketing for a few months when I discovered the industry’s magnum opus, Glengarry Glen Ross, the 1992 movie based on David Mamet’s play. Four salesmen in Sheepshead Bay, at the ass-end of Brooklyn, sell real estate. The top guy at the end of the month gets a Cadillac, the second a set of steak knives, and the other two, announces Alec Baldwin in a legendary monologue, are fired. “Hit the bricks, pal, and beat it.”

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Mamet understood that telemarketing is acting. Each call demands a new role, a new character. Their clients don’t pick up a call from a pissant salesman, but from a company vice president in for the night from Florida, asking to make a house call. Al Pacino dons a mask and plays the long game with his mark, only to have it scuttled at the last moment by the hapless office manager, Kevin Spacey. “You’re fucking shit,” Pacino tells Spacey. “Where did you learn your trade? You stupid fucking cunt, you idiot. Who ever told you that you could work with men?” The story goes that the actors came to the shoot even when they weren’t in the scene, to watch their colleagues perform in this glorious theater of white masculinity.

Which also describes my life at the time. At school, I’d fallen in with a smart-ass crew, a group of four who were international champs of a club called Future Problem Solving Program International. The husky one, Rob, we called Fatty Fat Fat Fat. We played a game where we circled Rob and riled him up until he was frothy, then made him fight us all at once. We called it Subdue the Beast. (At least two of us were in the closet.) We ran a paintball game in a public park; to join, initiates had to stand shirtless against a garage door and take shots to the back at close range. Our sadism escalated until, under the influence of David Fincher, we founded an actual fight club attended by dozens of our classmates. We strutted the high school hallways plotting matches, relishing the chance to stage humiliations, yentas of resentment. In our hubris, our mistaken conviction that psychological domination would translate into physical prowess, we ourselves fought and had our asses roundly handed to us.

But words were what we wielded best. We treated Glengarry as a user’s manual. We cribbed its lines, its cadences, its vision of a world where verbal pyrotechnics serve as weapons in an endless hierarchical battle among men. You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. That it was not only vicious but arty, and a good few years old, and by Mamet—that it carried a vague aura of culture—suited our attempts to appear enigmatic. The Coen brothers, fellow Minnesotans, were nearer to hand, so we mined Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski to hone our craft. This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass, we wrote, defacing signs in Rob’s yard for liberal political candidates.

We weren’t beautiful, athletic, or amiable, but we were clever. We made school into our theater, on our terms. We came to watch each other perform. Sadism was our specialty: pleasure in a cutting turn of phrase, abasement, subterfuge, laced in equal parts with homophobia and desire. Our nickname, among other honors students, was “the Fascists.”

In the lull before September 11, before the Iraq war and resurgent white nationalism and 4chan, we were young, upper-middle-class white men with excess energy, more than we could expend on Swedish death metal or catfishing with a 28.8 Kbps modem. Our lefty cousins, ahead of the curve, attentive already to wealth inequality and wage stagnation, fought the Battle of Seattle, smashing Starbucks windows and looting Niketown against globalization, an augury of Naomi Klein and, much later, Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, I wrote essays defending urban sprawl and deriding global warming as a hoax.

Ours was a pastiche conservatism, rooted in our belief that we were smarter and more deserving of success than anyone else. Because we lacked evidence for this belief, we adopted an ethos of quotidian domination; we were debased Nietzscheans for whom cruelty signaled strength. We convinced the school to let us do an independent study on Ayn Rand. We called it “Philosophy.” Because we had already read Rand’s full oeuvre, we spent our time creating an elaborate joke, a series of intricately illustrated posters for made-up clubs—the John Stamos Society, the Council of Elders—vehicles for coded slander and eerie absurdism expressed through Simpsons and South Park quotes, lampooning a classmate’s mother’s alleged sexual habits or depicting two clowns discussing an abusive father over a water cooler. We had a mentor, a young social studies teacher who was named Branden after Rand’s acolyte and lover, Nathaniel Branden. But he was a liberal, for which we mocked him to his face.

We hated Immanuel Kant because Rand taught us that his categorical imperative was a trick that poisoned the West with altruism, and we hated altruism. We hated volunteering. We loved Robert Nozick and hated John Rawls. We spent our weekends playing the board game Diplomacy, which ineluctably devolved from backstabbing into lurid wrestling.

We knew few people of color. Those we did we deracinated, or exoticized, or both. Our student council president was black, the son of a Ugandan doctor. The one girl who hung with our crowd was the daughter of Indian immigrants. But these facts were never something we considered. They were white to us, until they weren’t. Only later, after leaving, did I learn that a huge segment of the city’s black population lived in north Minneapolis, just a few miles away, in a neighborhood gutted in all the usual ways.

The whiteness of our masculinity bubbled closest to the surface through the day’s culture wars, or really the day before’s, to which we were Alex P. Keaton–come–latelies. In the spirit of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, we ridiculed the teaching of hip-hop at Harvard, a shameful sop to black students admitted through affirmative action and, worse, to self-hating white liberals. We were Kenneth Starr fanboys. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was to us an ugly black gash, a crime against America’s veterans. O. J. was a thug. This was whiteness as factional allegiance, assuaging egos damaged by nothing but our sense that we were meant to inherit the earth.

For all our cruelty to others, we were most intent on competing among ourselves, most attentive to each other’s weaknesses, pressure points, shame. There was no generosity, no kindness, no touching without violence. Faggot, said Pacino. Fairy. We wanted to belong to each other. This was how we knew to show it. Gaslighting, fucking with heads. It was a tiny, torrid crucible.


The telemarketing shop, for its part, was full of kids living below the poverty line in trailer parks at the edge of town, hidden from our subdivisions and culs-de-sac. I’d played with those kids in elementary school, when we’d made one another sick by spinning the tire swing too fast. But we were tracked into parallel universes, so I hadn’t seen them in years, thought they’d moved away. Derek was a middle-aged man getting thrills showboating for these kids, bragging about rip-off Rolexes from his buddy’s pawnshop. Big picture, we were competing for scraps. I was alpha dog in a junkyard.

I transcended the staid script Tuck gave us and began to read my own, tested in my laboratory. Derek made me a closer and eventually gave me a book of our best leads: previous customers. I had names, dates, details. These were enough for a story. “Dave? It’s Damien, vice president. Look, I’m glad I caught you. I don’t normally get on the phone. But I asked my secretary to bring me our files because it’s the last day of our fall sale and I want, personally, to ensure that each of our previous customers who’s overdue for a duct cleaning gets in on it. You, your wallet, and clean air for your kids is why I’m talking to you, not sitting down to dinner with my wife and kids, so let’s do this. Let’s go, Dave. Let’s talk dates.”

I don’t know whether I learned to do this from Glengarry Glen Ross or came up with it myself. I don’t know whether Derek studied Baldwin’s monologue. All I know is that none of us was paying attention when Ed Harris said, more or less to himself, at the beginning of the film, “The rich get richer, that’s the law of the land.”


In Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, struggles in his telemarketing job until he gets some advice from an older colleague. “Hey, youngblood,” Danny Glover’s Langston tells him, “use your white voice.” Cassius says people say he already talks with a white voice. “Well, you don’t talk white enough,” Langston replies. “I’m not talking about Will Smith white.” Glover’s voice is then dubbed with that of an uncredited white temp engineer who happened to be on the film’s set that day. “Hey Mr. Kramer, this is Langston from RegalView. I didn’t catch you at the wrong time, did I?” Glover’s lips move, but instead of his gravelly voice, we hear that of the chipper, high-pitched engineer. It is an unsettling, comic moment, a burst of racial ventriloquism.

Langston explains that white voice isn’t what white people actually sound like. “It’s like sounding like you don’t have a care. . . . It’s what they wish they sounded like. It’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like.”

After Cassius finds his white voice, dubbed by the comedian David Cross, he becomes the best encyclopedia salesman on the floor. The administration invites him to join a secret, elite cadre of telemarketers, the mythical “power callers.” Power callers sell labor on behalf of WorryFree, a company that secures its workers with lifetime contracts. WorryFree, we learn, is turning these workers into a more efficient, hybrid species known as equisapiens: half human, half horse.

Like Cassius, I followed a trajectory from small-time rip-offs to world-historical crime. It was because I was a white voice savant that I was invited by a mortgage broker called American Summit to become what was, in 2001, its version of a power caller.


The summer before my senior year, I went to a camp in northern Minnesota. I’d been going for years as a camper, but this was my first time staying for an extended period as a junior counselor. I met blond twins from Edina, the wealthy Minneapolis suburb, whose little brother, earlier that year, had died suddenly of a stopped heart. Their proximity to death lent them a mystical gravity. They told me about kids our age with statewide reputations for charisma, future politicians, gaslighters, head-fuckers. I met a white-haired girl from Minneapolis who performed in the circus, a contortionist, whose cognitive map consisted of private schools and city streets and hip cafés and the Mississippi River. I met a posh British girl, someone’s cousin, the bad seed, who dipped tampons in ketchup and left them on the doorstep of the boys’ cabin. We wandered in the boreal forest and I heard about parties at the Cargill mansion. We paddled on Burntside Lake and I heard about canoe trips in the Arctic, weeks spent in the wilderness. Everything spoke to the provinciality of my little suburban life. I’d glimpsed a higher elite that operated with different codes, ennobled levity, subtler cruelty. My habitual grotesqueries fell flat, my flirtations were ignored. I felt myself fumbling, awkward, beneath.

I came home with a new distance. I saw us through elite eyes, silently questioned our ethos. My friends felt it and resented me. I was confused, didn’t know what was happening. But in their resentment I also saw how I could leverage distance into power.

If I whispered sweetly enough, just about everybody had a tale of financial woe awaiting a stranger to tell it to.

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At work, Derek had given me a sweetheart deal to keep me through the summer and into the fall, our busiest season. The first week of September, homesick for camp, I gave him my two weeks’ notice, and he told me what I could do with it.

I was only 17 but longed for a radical transvaluation of my life. I’d grown bored with my trifling mendacity and skeptical of Rand’s righteous dogmatism and maladroit prose, skeptical less about her truth than her usefulness to whatever game I was playing. I shed all my allegiances. I quit marching band, math team, drama club. I was kicked off the cross-country team for insubordination. When I spotted the ad for American Summit in the paper that November, I was spending most my time skipping school to get lunch at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet—or, once, to pick up the latest Tool album from Best Buy—before going home to read Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s humor, elaborately linguistic and stupidly slapstick, seduced me, quietly and over the long run, toward his politics of the marginal, the liberatory, the ephemerally utopian.

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At my job interview, I saw that American Summit would be different. The office was clean and staffed with well-dressed adults. The interviewer told me they were disinclined to hire a teen who hadn’t graduated from high school, but I could see this was just a provocation, a test. I told him not to worry, cupping his concern in my hands. I narrated my experience, knowing that what I was saying mattered less than my poise in saying it, my treating him like a would-be client.

My task was to get people talking about their debt. First mortgage, second mortgage, credit cards, auto loans, student loans. What was the balance, the monthly payment, the interest rate? Had they ever paid late in the last year? Had they filed for bankruptcy? What was their gross annual income?

This, I thought, would be difficult. My parents had taught me that it was imprudent to discuss one’s finances outside the nuclear family. To a telemarketer on a cold call? Unthinkable.

Then I got on the phone. On the phone, I had my voice. I was not a confused 17-year-old; I was exactly who the person on the other end of the line needed me to be. “Dave? It’s Damien. If I handed you $5,000, what would you do with it?” We had just elected George W. Bush to the presidency, a man you could have a beer with. I was selling his ownership society. Own a home, raise your kids, feel safe, prosper. “My job, Dave, is to save you money, save you stress, save your family. That Disney trip you promised your kids? I’m looking at your numbers, I’m seeing what we can do, and I’m telling you, you’re gonna take it.”

I learned not to underestimate American desperation.

Call after call, all night long, I tallied litanies of debt. This was a revelation. My parents abhorred debt, my grandpa believed it evil. But I could cold-call Bob, Helen, Candace, Chris, and count on $10,000 on their Visa, a personal loan from Wells Fargo to the tune of $5,000 at a rate of 17 percent to cover medical bills, in addition to two mortgages. The particulars of each heartbreak differed, but if I whispered sweetly enough, just about everybody had a tale of financial woe awaiting a stranger to tell it to.

All I had to do was get them in the door. I scheduled appointments with loan officers, at which point my work was done. A few weeks later, I’d get a note that said, “Thanks, teammate! Your persistence, effort, and spirited professionalism allowed this client to receive the following benefits”: this many years off their loans, this much we’d saved them each month, this much we’d saved them in total. At the bottom, the loan officer would leave me a personal message. “Great loan!” “Unbelievable!” “Great job, Dan!” “He was very impressed. Couldn’t believe we could cut the term almost in half. Thanks for your hard work and determination. I appreciate it! So do the families you are helping!”

I believed that we were helping people, not scamming them. Against my moral turpitude, I felt little pangs of satisfaction when I read the notes that showed the savings we’d granted. I’ll use my superpower for good, I thought.

My coworkers, who at first impressed me with their veneer of professionalism, soon proved as desperate as the people we were calling. For many of them, this was a second job. And they were bad at it. They went limp at the first sign of resistance. They weren’t fuckers at all. Our boss lacked Derek’s verve and nihilism. He motivated us with lottery tickets. At the end of the day I’d sit in my car and scratch at them with the corrugated edge of a penny, winning maybe $2 or, on a good day, $5.

In April, the boss invited me into his office. “Dan,” he said. “We know talent when we see it.” He told me that the part of the company where I worked was paltry and meaningless. Refinancing loans locally was the anteroom. He was going to show me the whole house. “The mortgage business is booming,” he told me. “We’re working with markets in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta. The Carolinas, California. Selling mortgages over the phone. This is where the money is. This, my friend, is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Come. Join us.” He said the company would put me through a three-month training and sign me on a one-year contract. I would work sixty hours each week. That first year I would make, depending on my sales, between $80,000 and $150,000. He gave me two weeks to think about it.

I had just turned 18 and was being offered six figures.

It was, I understood, the dawn of a boom for mortgages. “We are committed to putting more people into homes,” the president of the company said a few years later. “And the best way to do that is to make homeownership more affordable to all.”


“Setting up shop here is almost as easy as renting a storefront in a mall and opening the door,” the journalist Julie Forster wrote in Corporate Report: Minnesota in 1998. The state’s lax approach to regulation extended to independent mortgage companies (IMCs). Interest rates were low. IMCs could, beginning with a deregulation in 1982, sell adjustable rate mortgages. The secondary financial market for these mortgages, thanks to a 1992 deregulation, was growing.

In the mid-’90s, the number of IMCs in Minnesota rose from two hundred to around eight hundred, according to the state’s Department of Commerce. But these are estimates. There was no licensing law. A staff attorney at the Department of Commerce said at the time, “We haven’t got a clue how many mortgage companies there are in the Twin Cities or Minnesota.” “They were coming in from all over the United States,” the chairman of the Minnesota House of Representatives Commerce Committee told Forster, “and we didn’t even know who they were.”

Anyone could call themselves a mortgage company, broker high-risk mortgages, and unload them to financiers, becoming an overnight millionaire.

Michael McVay created American Summit in 1997. The company quickly moved from his garage to a number of well-appointed office buildings. By 2003, it was the seventh-largest IMC in Minnesota. Like the others, it specialized in nonconventional mortgages, designed for people who would be rejected by most banks because of insufficient capital, low credit, or a spotty employment record. Nonconventional is another name for subprime. “They’ll find money for people in bankruptcy,” Forster wrote. “Or they’ll sell to customers like the one [American Summit’s director of marketing] described as hiding from the repo man, waiting for the sheriff to serve him foreclosure papers on his home, and up to his neck in credit card debt.” The question about bankruptcy that I asked each person I called was not, as I’d thought, an attempt to suss out a warning sign, but an enticement. I was checking not for a red light, but a green.

Hundreds of other IMCs behaved the same way. What American Summit did that most didn’t—what allowed its bosses to claim they could “turnkey an office and be profitable within eighteen days”—was use “aggressive marketing techniques.” That is, telemarketers.

For my cohort—white, middle class, liminal, too young to be Gen X, too old to feel millennial, post–cold war but pre-Google—it’s difficult to believe that for most, the ’90s were a time of quiet desperation and slow violence. We came of age during the glancingly brief end of history, raised to believe that our futures were limitless and that our nation’s narrative—at least the one it told its kids—was trending forever up. The reality is difficult to believe even for me, who as a kid spent my weeknights tallying the nation’s debt, on the phone with its debtors.


Most people took subprime loans because, by the ’00s, real average wages in the United States had stagnated for thirty years, the social safety net had been disassembled, and yet prices had continued to rise. Wealth inequality had reached heights not seen in a century. Ordinary people were not buying mansions they couldn’t afford. Ordinary people were taking subprime loans to keep the lights on, and the heat, and the gas, and to feed their kids. They were taking subprime loans to survive.

I was the first point of contact. Subtending all the trading, the hedging, and the rating fraud was a simple phone call where I explained how much money I could save my desperate new friend. When I hear the suggestion that ordinary people were living beyond their means, I think of these phone calls. I think of how I used every trick to convince my new friend to stay on the line. I think of the promise threaded into my every word, the promise sewn into the fabric of this nation, the threadbare fantasy of an American dream.


The financial crisis disproportionately punished black people. “As the early-2000s housing bubble was peaking,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “African Americans were 50 percent more likely than their white peers to receive a subprime loan.” More subprime loans meant, later, more foreclosures:

This historic collapse in Black homeownership is an important part of why the wealth gap between Black and white Americans is larger today than it has been in decades. In 2007, right before the crash, the median white family had eight times the wealth of the median Black family. By 2013, that figure had risen to eleven times, and it has tapered off only slightly since.

This is the America of Sorry to Bother You. Oakland is a shantytown. WorryFree, an apotheosis of the gig economy, offers room and board. “We’re transforming life itself,” says WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift, channeling Silicon Valley techno-utopianism. “We’re saving the economy. I mean, we’re saving lives.”

Cassius lives in his uncle’s garage. He is four months late on rent. When his uncle confronts him about this, he responds with a little speech. “God made this land for all of us. And greedy people like you want to hog it to yourself and your family and charge all the rest of us for the right to live.”

“Me and my family?” asks his uncle.

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“Yeah.”

“Cassius, I’m your fucking uncle. The bank might take my fucking house.”

When Cassius becomes a power caller, brokering WorryFree’s slave labor, he justifies himself on the grounds that he must stave off his uncle’s foreclosure. He moves into a bright, arty apartment and buys a flashy car, risking, as his friends point out, falling prey to the white voice he ventriloquizes.


On August 17, 2007, the Minnesota Department of Commerce ordered American Summit, which had changed its name to WealthSpring Mortgage, to appear at a prehearing conference to show cause why its mortgage originator license should not be revoked. WealthSpring did not appear there or at the subsequently scheduled prehearing set for October 4, 2007. The judge found that WealthSpring had “engage[d] in a fraudulent, deceptive or dishonest act and demonstrate[d] untrustworthiness, financial irresponsibility, and incompetence.”

Michael McVay filed for bankruptcy in Florida two years later.


I quit American Summit in June 2001. Rather than getting rich as a loan officer, I went to college. But first, I lived through that ephemeral passage after high school graduation when we knew everything was about to change, was changing, and that this was the last dispensation of the brutal life we’d created with and through one another, a life that would make college feel thin and pathetic, at least at first.

That summer we gambled almost every night. We piled into the Oldsmobile and drove into the far prairie exurbs, Red Wing or Shakopee, to the Native American casinos where we could exercise our newly granted adult rights at blackjack tables and quarter slots. Fridays were special. We went early to catch the horse races at Canterbury Downs. I remember yelling as the jockeys leaned into the final turn, tip sheet tight in my fist, the sun lowering on the horizon. I always lost on the horses. But we had a rule. If anyone in the car made $100 at Canterbury, or at the casino later, he treated the rest of us to Perkins. It was a summer of Tremendous Twelves at two in the morning.

On August 31, 2001, driving home, we took a detour. We’d always seen in the distance across the prairie what looked like a twinkling city. We called it the Emerald City, and it held that promise for me, the childish wonder of Oz. This was, we knew, our last chance. Tomorrow we went to college. I turned off the highway and drove the back roads under star-sprent skies toward the lights. Eventually, we arrived, and stepped outside, and approached the tall, locked fence. It was an oil refinery. It was sublime.

Years later I learned that the refinery was run by a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Smoke billowed above us in a vast cloud, everything smelled like tar, the noise was catastrophic. I stood with my fingers hooked in the chain-links, looking up, nostalgic as only the young can be for the adolescent years about to be gone, for what, I suppose, I would have called my innocence.

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