They met on a car lot in P.G., selling, not buying, and instantly they knew everything they had to about each other where they stood on gold chains, on wine and cheese, on leisure suits, on hot tubs. And where they stood, of course, was on the wrong side, the toolate side. This time would be different they shook on it. This time The Big Score would come in their half of the inning. There weeks ago they placed their first ad: "This is to advise you that RENT-A-VOICE/PERSON INC. is now in operation in the Washington area. Our service does what you necessarily wouldn't or couldn't do .. And they leande back and blue-skied about what colors the Sevilles would be and what shape to make the swimming pool. It is always thus with the neon dreamers, and it is always the same thing they eventually learn that artifical light casts an artificial shadow.
Tom is talking about the $30 job, the one where he personally delivers the single red rose on the satin pillow and the spilt of champagne.
"No paper cups," he says.
Of course not.
"Gotta have class," he says.
That's why Tom puts on the suit when he's out on the job as the rented person. "Gotta look sharp," he says. "Can't go out with a bandana across your forehead, or an earring or a pack of joints hangin' out your pocket."
Tom is wearing a green shirt, the color of new money. Priorities.
You'er looking good, America.
Tom Victor, who looks a little like Wolfman Jack might look if The Wolfman played Dayton, got the idea from Playboy. (What sort of man reads Playboy? Tom Victor, 33, three buttons open, born in Nerlin, naturalized citizen, likes to dress up as Frankenstein.).
"I read about this phone thing, Lip Service, under 'unusual Services.' Called the guy on the coast and he gave me some hints. But he's strictly phone calls -- he doesn't do nowhere near the things I do."
Enter Jim Mayes, 40, born in West Virginia, given to Sans-a-belts, owned a gas station, drove a tractor-trailer likes to dress up as Count Dracula -- "Hey, the world's a stage, huh? -- a semi-pale, fully thin man who looks as if he might actually need the blood.
Tom needed a partner. His idea was rent-a-voice. Look, gotta be a million people out there too shy or too scared to tell someone how they really feel. Freddie want to break up with Dorothy; Sue wants to get something going with Norman; Ralph wants to call in sick; Steve wants to tell Laura I love her.
Go-betweens. Everyboddy needs one sometime.
That was Tom's idea, doing the Ma Bell Hustle. Lip Service was certainly working, and it wasn't like it was an isolated case -- similar operations were springing up in major cities all across the country.
Jimmy went him one up. Don't stop with the horn, man, think big. Reach ot, reach out, but don't you just say hi. . .Rent-a-person!
Sometimes a great notion.
Tom is smiling.
Jim is smiling.
Cheryl is smiling too. Cheryl Coultas, 21, tall, blond, winsme as opposed to lose some, tender bars in Maryland, rents a room in the Temple Hills house that Tom and Jim own. where the phone is. Looking for precisely the right words.
"They can talk to anyone," Cheryl says. "They've got the gift."
"Let's put it this way," Jim says, "in the car business you gotta know how to act."
There is a word for this way to act "You need shot-spah," Tom says.
Jim's smile turns into a sly grin, the kind where it looks as if you've swallowed your teeth. $100,000 Lip Service
"Did you hear the radio spots on WPGC?" Tom asks.
"The guy interviewed us and ran three separate spots," Jim says. "The phone didn't stop."
"You see, it's just a matter of publicity," Tom says. "Once of everyone hears about us the business'll take off like a rocket. We'er doing this happy thing and we'er in on the ground floor. It could be pretty big. Everyone's got a phone, right?"
"I could kick myself for not getting into this years ago," Jim says.
"The guy at Lip Service says he made about $100,000 last year," Tom says.
The number rolls off his tongue like caramel. Cheater Calls
There is one phone, but the plans call for another when the spark gets hot. Two phones. Four full-time employees. Now it's just Tom, Jim, a woman who does mostly clerical work and The Impressionist, Bill Robie. He's prt-time. Then again, so's his act. You can get your phone message delivered by Jimmy Carter (excellent), Muhammad Ali (acceptable) or Rod Serling (recognizable). But hey, this is Temple Hills, not Vegas. When was the last time Rich Little played the Sheration-Lanham?
Rent-a-voice costs $7.50 a pop plus nny long distance charges. You get your message delievered in the tone of your choice; Tom is real good at angry, and Jim can be so sweet you could get a cavity just listening.
They call, identify themselves, identify the person who contracted them unless anonymity is requested -- give the message ("You neighbors think you ought to use a proper scooper for your dog because they're tired of surprises when they tiptoe through their tulips."), wait for a reply ("Tel 'em they'er lucky he ain't no Doberman.") and then call the messenger to report what the messagee said.
Most messages are simple and happy. Happy Birthday. Happy Anniversary. Have a Happy Day. I love you. It's 7.a.m. and I wish you were here with me. But the repertoire also includes secret messages from a Mr. to a mistress, or from a Mr. to a Mrs., though not necessarily from a Mr. to his Mrs.
"I don't really like making cheater calls," Tom says. "But there's a big need for that kind of thing aroung here."
Tom is smiling.
Jim is smiling.
Cherly is smiling.
Apparently there's a big need for that kind of thing around here. Bucket of Blood
"I did this call for a group of girls who chipped in because they needed someone to tell their boss that he had bad body odor," Tom says. "I mean they were too shy to tell the guy, 'Hey, you stink -- clean up your act." So I did it. I did it in an angry voice like they wanted, but you gotta use a little tact. At the end of the message you try to make him feel a little better; you tell him you'er only doing this because it's you're only doing this because it's your job. I said, 'Sir, some people have hired me to tell you that you've got a cleanliness problem so why don't you clean up your act?' I guess the guy was embarrassed because he didn't say nothing to me."
On the day Skylab fell -- precisely as it fell -- Tom placed a call to a woman "from a person wishing to remain anonymous" telling her that the messager "hopes the Skylab falls on your head and knocks you into another dimension."
Angry, yes. But tactful
She even laughed a little, Tom says.
Rent-a-person has sliding rates. For $20 Jim dressed up like a woman and gave a birthday cake and a bottle of liquor to a girl who that day reached the legal drinking age.For $25 he dressed up as Dracula and delivered a single red rose and a bucket of blood to a druggist in La Plata, in front of his customers. The blood was ketchup and water. Real blood would have cost extra, jim says.
It's a quick hit. Frankenstein or The Count show up, do a little Transylvania shtick and split. If you want to rent them by the hour for Ghoularama parties, it's $15. "Seriously," Tom says, "ask around you can't beat the price." The Vice Boys
Okay some of you are thinking tackissimo. Well, c'mon folks, give them a break. They're only performing the services you'er all asking for. One man's tacky is another man's income, right? And it's not like they don't have any standards. No obscenities. No threats. No harrassment. No insults. (Well, maybe a little insult like the Skylab call. But that was all in fun. Wasn't it?)
"Nothing illegal," Tom says, "all I need is one person making a complaint to the telephone company and I'm out of business. This is too good to throw away like that."
AND NO SEX
Jim handles most of those calls. He knows where they are coming from right away. They're always men. Looking for women, sometimes even for gay boys.
"They'er always so evasive," Jim says. "So I ask 'em -- 'What the bottom line here?" As soon as I hear the word, 'companionship, I know. I tell 'm to look in the phone book for an sscort service. Not us."
"You gotta be real careful," Tom says. "I'm sure the police'll be calling checking us out to see if we'er hiding a prostitution ring. I wouldn't be surprised if the vice boys haven't already called."
"we're not into that," Jim says.
"we're into happy things," Tom says. "That other day we delivered a red rose on a satin pillow to a woman in the hospital and the next day we delivered a Shakespeare love sonnet from a girl to her boyfriend. We even read it to him. Now that's what we're into."
Tom is smiling.
Jim is smiling.
Cheryl is smiling.
Later the sonnet girl is called.
"Please don't use my name," she says. "I'm going through a divorce. Yeah, I was real satisfied with their service. It was really a dramatic thing, don't you think?") "Like Superman"
The phone is on the window ledge and the three of them are sitting around a table. On the table are various slips of pink paper, Telephone messages, and a copy of Playboy.
How what are we really taling about here with this rent-a-thing?
"I've thought a lot about that," Jim says.
"So have I," Tom says.
Cheryl nods. Yes they have.
Some heavy-osity is about to go down.
"Everyone is betting much liberated, Jim says. "Much more freer. We live in a very, very fast land."
"It's time to take a break," Tom says, "to laugh a little."
"It's like a new fad, like Superman," Jim says.
"I love it," Tom says.
"Can't wait for the next call, " Jim says.
"Can I say something?" Cheryl asks. "I think what it says about America is that there's a market for anything."
Lip Service still exists in San Francisco where it began in August 1976, founded and owned by Phillip Abrams, who believes in it more than ever.
"I used to giggle about what I was doing," he says. "I started it when Jerry Ford was president and Henry Kissinger was doing all his speaking for him; I thought everyone should have the opportunity to have someone speak for them. The publicity response was tremendous. Suddenly similar operations were starting up all over the country: Chutzpah Phone Service in Philadelphia; Jawbone in Los Angeles; Pass the Word in Florida Confidential Communicantion in Seattle. But I never changed my concept. I never took any angry calls, no insults, no threats no assignations. The ones that fo never last. I'm doing, the legitimacy it reached over te years. The more I do it, the more reasonable a service it seems to me".
He says ge never heard of Tom Victor, never gave him any hints, never told him he made $100,000 last year.
"Are you kidding?" Abrams says. "I'll tell you what -- if you can find anyone in this business making anywhere near that, call me, I'll do a fullgainer off the Golden Gate Bridge." Meanwhile
Within three days of this interview the partnership between Tom Victor and Jim Mayes was dissolved, Victor says, at his own insistence. Victor did not like the direction Mayes was taking with the business.
"He's too much into rent-a-monster," Victor said.
Victor said he filed legal papers to dissociate himself completely from Mayes, including their joint ownership of the house in Temple Hills. Victor opened up a new RENT-A-VOICE/PERSON on Oxon Hill, which he operates with his girlfriend, Veralynn Bell. They do mostly phone messagers, but Victor also continues to deliver single red roses on satin pillows and bottles of champagne. He will also provide customers with limousine service fpr $150 for three hours and would even pay for a couple's dinner if they rented the limo, "but it depends where they want to go." He has given a share pf his business to The Impressionist, who has expanded his act to include John Wayne, Gomer Pyle, Alfred Hitchcock and (God knows why) Marlin Perkins.
"Rent-a-voice was my idea from the start," Victor says. "I'm much better off doing it myself. Jim is still trying to maintain his operation. Once I start getting the publicity mine will make off."
Until such time Tom Victor is working at a car lot in P.G., selling, not buying.
The Temple Hills number is still being operated automatically, but repeated phone messages were left last week and Jim Mayes did not return the calls.
So it goes. CAPTION: Picture, Jim (Dracula) Mayes and Tom Victor