The calls usually come at the dinner hour, as my family and I are knifing into our chicken.

“Is Mr. Pick there?” someone will ask, and I am handed the phone.

As the phone representative winds into his spiel about this theater or that credit-card company, I break in. “Hey, Bob, can I have your number, please?”

Bob usually balks. “Oh, we only make outgoing calls,” he’ll say. But if I remind Bob that since he called me I am entitled to call him, I generally wangle the number. I dial back, the primeval anger welling up inside, and ask for Bob. Once Bob gets on the line I waste his time for a minute or two, then ask for his supervisor. Again there’s resistance (by now Bob is plenty annoyed), but eventually I’m put through.

“Bob, your representative, just called me,” I inform the supervisor. “Like many consumers I don’t like to receive telemarketing calls. Our only recourse is to complain about them.”

The supervisor is invariably apologetic, and I return to my family, who are rolling their eyes at my juvenile, ineffective display, which they have just witnessed for the umpteenth time.

But can I be alone in my irritation?

After all, the Los Angeles-based American Telemarketing Association says phone sales and marketing now constitute a $60-billion-a-year industry, with 2.6 million Americans employed just to make the calls. Robert Bulmash, president of a group called Private Citizen, says the volume of telemarketing calls nationwide has increased 40 percent just in the last two years.

When I called Bulmash at his Naperville office he seemed to share my irritation, but of course he would. He founded Private Citizen in 1988 hoping to help people get back at telemarketers and junk-mail firms. Join the group, for $20, and you receive a list of 1,100 direct-marketing companies. All have been sent a letter warning that if they call or write a Private Citizen member it will cost them $500.

If a hapless telemarketer phones Bulmash, he masquerades as “the perfect telesucker,” saying something like: “Oh, hey, the Policemen’s Association. Fantastic! As a matter of fact, my aunt just had a problem with a prowler in the neighborhood. You policemen were out in a jiffy–boy, you were great. And I was just talking to my wife about how you guys deserve credit. It’s so fortunate that you called just now, because it would be nice if we could reward you for such good service.

“We do want to give to this fund of yours, but I’m a little bit concerned about doing business over the phone with a faceless voice. If you wouldn’t mind, what’s the name, address, and phone number of your organization? Once I know that I’ll feel so much more comfortable with this call.”

Then he calls back to advise the organization that he’s owed $100. “I’ll accept less,” Bulmash tells them, “but if you don’t pay me something, expect to be sued.” He’s collected on at least a dozen occasions.

Two curmudgeons do not a consensus make, of course, so I conducted an unscientific survey of Chicagoans to find out how they deal with telemarketing calls. Here are the results:

Richard Roeper, Sun-Times columnist: “Mostly I let the answering machine take the call. The telemarketer can talk to the machine as long as he likes. The times that he has gotten me live, I say, ‘Thank you. I’m not interested. Please don’t call back here again.’ And I hang up.

“Still, I try not to bite anyone’s head off. I always envision the poor person on the other end of the line as sitting in a cubicle, having to make calls eight hours a day and earning $1.25 an hour plus commission. Think about doing that!”

John Brayman, vice president of marketing, sales, and business development, Illinois Bell: “I give the person the opportunity to present his opening dialogue, to identify where he’s from. If I have an interest, I’ll listen. We moved into a new home a year ago, and I can’t tell you how many of the services we use today–window washers, the people who plow out my driveway–are the result of people contacting us after we moved in.

“Remember, these callers are part of the great mass of Americans who are trying to earn a living. These aren’t people who are employed to harass us. They are trying, in most cases, to bring us valuable products, or they’re representing charitable organizations–these aren’t bad people, and we shouldn’t cast them in that light. It would be just as wrong to be rude to them as it would be to walk into a department store and treat the sales attendants poorly.”

George Tovar, vice president of Response Call, a telemarketing firm in Addison: “My reaction depends on the type of call I get. If it’s something I don’t want, I let them go on to their next call–I understand the business, and that callers don’t want to spend a lot of time with someone who isn’t receptive. If I’m interested, I continue the conversation. Recently I was contacted by a specialty firm in New Jersey that has rare compact discs. I’m a big Jethro Tull fan, and I bought a bootleg double disc from the Rock Island tour in 1989.”

Bob Sirott, WMAQ TV morning anchor: “My dialogue with a sales guy goes like this: ‘You’re at work now, is that correct, sir?’ I say. ‘Yes.’ ‘Now, since I’m at home, I don’t think this is quite fair. When you get off, call me on your own time. That way we’ll both be talking on our own free time.'”

Rhona Hoffman, art dealer: “I’m usually keyed in to these calls because they start out by asking for Rhonda, or Mrs. Aaaaaah as they look down their list to find my name. When they get my name right I say, ‘Mrs. Hoffman is not in.’ Or ‘Mrs. Hoffman is out for the evening.'”

Caroline Shoenberger, Chicago Commissioner of Consumer Services: “I try to be very polite and tell them I’m not interested in doing business. Number one, I feel my privacy is being invaded, and number two, I will not do business over the telephone.”

Maria Whelan, Director of Children’s Services for the city: “I try to be pleasant, but not when they call me at suppertime. Out comes a speech about working mothers, a family values talk. I say, ‘Excuse me. I am a working mother. I have children. I am trying to prepare dinner. You should be more sensitive–and your company needs to be more sensitive–to the fact that people during the dinner hour need to be spending time with their families, not talking on the telephone about spending their money.'”

Tom Geoghegan, lawyer and author: “What seems to be effective in getting them off the phone is to say, ‘I’m quite interested. Send me some literature and let me look at it, and I’ll get back to you.’ That usually works. It satisfies them, it’s nonabrasive, and they hang up.

“I once went out with a woman who had an unlisted phone number, and when I asked her why she said, ‘It’s unlisted because the Goodman keeps calling to get me to subscribe.’ We’re still friendly, and her number’s still unlisted. The Goodman does seem to be the worst.”

Roche Schulfer, producing director, the Goodman Theatre: “If they’re calling to sell me a newspaper or a magazine that I don’t want, I won’t waste their time. If it’s an arts organization, I will generally listen because I’m either curious to hear how effective their telemarketing pitch is and/or I’m actually interested in contributing.”

Robert Creamer, executive director, Illinois Public Action: “My response has to be colored by the fact that Illinois Public Action does telemarketing, asking our members to take political action or to make contributions. I’m willing to listen to what anyone has to say, and then I’ll tell them thanks anyway if I’m not interested. Telemarketing is part of everyday life. It’s a reasonable way to reach a broad base of people in our society, to organize the rank and file of the citizenry.”

Michael Silverstein, professor of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, University of Chicago: “I’m interested in the call itself in a certain way, in trying to figure out things about it: the reason why I’m getting the call, in terms of the demographic analysis that lies behind it, or the connection to subscriber lists that get sold, and also the particular way in which the actual pitch is formed in terms of pushing certain buttons of a culturally understandable nature. I have to balance that against whether I’m being cruel, in the sense of allowing people to go on and on when I’m disinclined to cooperate.

“Aren’t you also sometimes amused by what you might call cinematographically that quick cut out of a situation that takes place when a call interrupts you? Because usually when you go back to whatever you were doing before, it’s not the same anymore. There’s been a change. Maybe the other parent has had to clean up the spilt juice.”

Scout Weschler, gay and lesbian rights activist: “I never take any of these calls seriously. If it’s an unsolicited call, it’s either to purchase something or to get involved in some cause. Everything that I’m involved in needs more of my money and energy than I can possibly give it right now, so it doesn’t make sense for me to stretch my commitments even further. As far as purchasing stuff, I’m not in the loop of buying things retail–I’m definitely on the resale level. The whole retail market is a zoo I go to and look at but don’t participate in.”

Coretta McFerren, schools activist: “I used to be in marketing, and so I try my best to be as amiable as possible. But, oh, don’t misunderstand me, I definitely find all this an annoyance. People call at the most inopportune times–during dinner, early in the morning, and at 8 or 9 o’clock at night when all you want is a quiet space somewhere to read a book or catch a moment’s peace. To the magazine salespersons who are as tenacious as the proverbial junkyard dog I say, ‘Listen, I don’t want any, and good-bye.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Rosenbaum.