Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Boston Public Library, Getty
The Dish Network call center in College Point, Queens, was not regarded as a particularly luxurious outpost. It was situated in a squat little building underneath the flight path from La Guardia airport, where smoke breakers struggled to hear their own gossip over the rip-rip of planes. The hardly decorated exterior was sandwiched between Home Depot and a Con Ed gas and power. An industrial yard with piles of dirt glowered nearby, full of machinery belching dust that would sometimes settle onto the call center’s windows and the cars.
Which is not to complain about the setting per se — there were plenty of things that workers in or out of the smoking circle might want to complain about, the jobsite and its distance from public transit merely being one of them. But certainly this location and basically just the regularity of everything around clashed strangely with what Barbara Hurdas heard on her first day on the job in 2011, when she sat next to George Santos in the training class and he started bragging about the money his family came from in Brazil.
Outside, the wind whistled along the glass. Cement mixers and garbage trucks barreled down the roads, a sign of the roads’ emptiness, or, you could even say, desolation. You could only just make out the moneymaking skyscrapers of Manhattan. Yet inside the call center, Santos was talking dollar signs, about how the family had property on Nantucket.
“It didn’t make sense,” Hurdas remembers.
But who has time to dwell much on small perceptions? It was their shared first day; there was lots to learn and a paycheck to await. Even if this new guy’s economic background didn’t match the general vibes of $12-an-hour call-center work, one thing was clear: He was good on the phone.
“He certainly had the gift of gab,” says John Rijo.
Rijo is a customer-service lifer. In the fall of 2011, when the 23-year-old Santos showed up at Dish, Rijo was already there for a tour of duty alongside him. Among the things he’s seen in the industry was, decades ago, a gimmick in which the phone operators for an airline were supposed to pick up by saying, “Thank you for calling the airline, my name is John Courtesy.” Daisy Ling would say, “Thank you for calling, this is Daisy Courtesy.” And so on and so forth. Some study or other said the Courtesy got stuck beneficially in callers’ heads.
But gimmicks like this go only so far. Call-center culture is not for the timid or easily cowed. The good representatives have something innate that no number of prepared scripts can beat. Back then, Rijo listened in to a few of Santos’s calls in his capacity as a supervisor. And the outgoing new kid was good.
He was an upseller, the currency of the land at a place like Dish, which had more than 13.9 million U.S. customers and was the nation’s third-largest pay-TV provider at the time. Key to its business model was, as Dish business filings put it, “better educating our customers about our products and services, and resolving customer problems promptly and effectively when they arise.” In other words, hustling on the phones.
This kind of customer-service work is challenging and often rote but also good training for a would-be con artist—or even a politician. Certainly that was true for Santos. The Dish representatives had to learn how to size up a mark—a customer—quickly, while they pitched the many movie packages available with just a mutter of one’s credit-card number. They had to be able to expound on the wisdom of purchasing insurance, sounding authoritative and adjusting their pitches effortlessly. If movies weren’t the customer’s style, there were also pay-per-view soccer matches. And the fabulist-in-training learns that it takes real skill to hold a story together. It’s cognitively hard to spin and even harder to lie.
Most of all, the agents would learn to savor the thrill of having pulled off a sale, of tacking on a big purchase to a customer who didn’t necessarily want one. Bonuses were available for the best customer-service agents at the end of the month.
There was money to be made, in other words, and Santos’s colleagues felt that he could smell that possibility. Congress was nowhere in the future here at Dish. He was simply eager, at least in the beginning, to get promoted.
Marcia Ritchie, who came from the same Brazilian region as much of Santos’s family and thus had an “immediate commonality” with him, remembered that he was ambitious from the jump, suggesting to her that in a year, he’d be on his way to something greater. He’d be a manager, for example. It was only a matter of time, and he was never patient. She remembered him pushing back from his desk and going to the director’s office to try to befriend that person and peering surreptitiously at the screen of a talented team leader, hoping to learn tricks to get good metrics.
He had the ability to focus, often shockingly, on what it was that he wanted, at least when it suited him. Some colleagues felt a sense sometimes that he was thinking, What can I get out of this?
There was the time when somebody from corporate came calling, and Hurdas remembers how strangely friendly, even kiss-ass-y, Santos became with this higher-up. This was Dish, a company with many thousands of workers at many levels. The corporate ladder is high, and vice-presidencies loom large. Hurdas is Greek from Queens, and in some ways that’s not so dissimilar to being Brazilian in the borough when it comes to the friendliness and the hugging and the kissing. But Santos’s behavior was different — he was adamant about making himself known professionally to this corporate man. On the crowded office floor with its thick windows that couldn’t be opened, Santos was looking to the suit as if he had the key to something better. He wanted his attention.
This practice in being a quick study would become one of his signatures. It’s what allowed him to sound reasonably knowledgeable as a politician or businessman, even if he knew almost nothing about the subject at hand.
At times, he embraced the social life of the job. Some colleagues remember him as a happy-go-lucky kid, eager to chop it up or walk outside with the gang for a smoke break. He would hug and kiss those he liked, and there was one woman he called his “work mom.” But he also seemed obsessed with showing that he was better than the rest, that he felt marooned in this first role, destined for greater things at Dish and beyond. He acted unconcerned about obeying the rank-and-file attendance rules, playing hooky and going to Macy’s to pick up some Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. His peers, many of whom came from humble backgrounds, were too scared to test those waters. They were single mothers, hustling newcomers, supporting children. They faced long commutes and many bills. This was Santos’s reality too, in fact, but confronted with it, he leaned into the story of a fictional Santos accustomed to comfort and money. There was all that talk of property and multigenerational wealth, a divider between him and his colleagues. He’d walk around comfortably in, for example, an untucked pink button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up. Once he showed pictures from what he said was a fancy vacation. (A vacation? some of his new friends might have wondered. What’s that?) Peering closer at the pictures, one shrewd colleague had some questions: Why was he not in any of the pictures? Were those stock photos—of Dubai?
But people made excuses for the kid. He was young. Being an adult is hard. He was figuring it all out. When they tried to square his story, they sometimes contorted: Maybe he’s studying business and wants to see the American economy from the ground up.
Ground level was definitely how this job often felt. It was not the easiest work in the world. Like all work that bosses pay underlings to do, the job Santos held was not done just for fun. Sitting on a phone might not be as physically taxing as the work of the contractors who buzzed around Home Depot down the road, or that of the Con Ed hard hats descending into manholes. But that’s what someone says when they have not sat without moving and completed 50 to 100 call-center calls a day. Where the calls must be answered in a matter of seconds.
There was a sound to the job. A doot-doot in the headphones. It meant another call coming in. If you wanted to catch your breath for three or 15 seconds, you might put yourself on a particular “After Call” setting, but the company didn’t like that: It went against metrics.
Lunch was an unsatisfying respite, particularly for someone who values his meals, as Santos has said he does. The trek to Sparky’s deli for a sandwich meant a diesel-smelling walk or drive past a sanitation facility. Or there were the food trucks that sometimes showed up in front of Home Depot. Someone had once cut a little hole in the garbage-collecting fence between the call center and Home Depot so the workers could duck through. The hole helped the workers shave a few minutes off their walk, save a little more for eating or gossiping or smoking in their designated outdoor area, anything that wasn’t politely assuaging the egos of America’s angry watchers of television, be they foreign or native born. Perhaps an immigrant truly becomes an American when they learn to ask for a manager.
The callers were agitated people, pissed about an extra dollar on their monthly bill, irate at the loss of an expected, family-favorite program. Or maybe their TV remote wasn’t working, and the call-center worker wasn’t helping, and there was a need to elevate the engagement or risk the person canceling it all. Transfers to the loyalty or retention departments sometimes happened too early, or too late. It added up to a job whose stress did not comport with the amount of money cleared each payday. Yet as the months went by, Santos’s behavior continued to give off the sense that he didn’t need the work — such as suggesting he had so much money that when a colleague announced she was getting married, Santos promised he would pay for the woman’s dress. (A fellow employee confirmed he didn’t.)
The workers had their own issues going on, but this Santos guy continued attracting fascination. Again and again, his actions raised burning questions for those whose financial circumstances meant they really needed to be at the drab College Point site: Why, if he had money, would he work at a job that could run 11 hours a day, four days a week? Why would he work for less than what would become, a few years later, the state’s minimum wage? If he really was rolling in dough, why would he trek to this distant office outpost? Why would he work in a call center at all?
It turned out that Santos did have options beyond the Dish drudgery. Or he was searching for them. Something beyond the cubicle was calling to him.
One such call was a woman named Uadla. Santos would mention this woman Uadla sometimes, the colleagues remember, perhaps even post her on social media — but not in the way of a romantic date or flirtatious getaway. It might be more on the order of going to Home Depot. Or a park in Queens.
Other people who knew Santos had similar stories — that when they met this woman Uadla she might be introduced as a friend, and Santos always had many of those. He would not indicate that she was or would be anything more. People who crossed paths with her at the time remarked on her beauty, and beauty was certainly something that Santos valued. She was someone who might come over and hang out on a weekend or go to the nightclubs with Santos and his friends; in an Instagram post from a few years later, the crew was at her apartment drinking Patrón, the shot glasses decorated with pictures of famous 20th-century gangsters and robbers. A hashtagged good time.
But in the beginning, one of Santos’s stories that made the rounds with Dish employees was that there was a trust fund he needed to access, and in order to retrieve it, he needed to be married. And so he was getting married to Uadla.
The inevitable deadpan, when he announced to one colleague that he was tying the knot. Pause, pause: “To a woman?”
the colleague asked.
It was not that he wore anything particularly flamboyant, but there was not much doubting of Santos’s sexuality in the smoke circle and cubicle row. “I always knew George to be gay,” Hurdas says. So what was up with this woman?
His colleagues wondered. Perhaps they had met in Brazil, where she seemed to be from, and she came back with him. Maybe his family was so against his sexuality that he felt, in order to please them, he had to get married. Some other immigrant workers from conservative families could understand this possibility. Santos did talk often about his mother, never his father. People do self-destructive things to please the ones they love. The workers heard this trust-fund possibility; perhaps that had something to do with it. And there was another whisper, among people accustomed to hearing stories about fellow strivers making ends meet: Did he marry her for immigration purposes? Did he get paid?
Santos did not provide clear answers, yet as usual, his colleagues in or out of the gossipy smoking circle wrote in their own conjecture around his avoidances. Plenty of the things he said at the call center or to the call-center workers you had to wonder: the money, his not needing the job. His mother being from Belgium. Her having Jewish ancestry. There was the generous assumption that maybe she was Sephardic. Hurdas even remembers Santos saying he was born in Brazil. The marriage was just another detail that didn’t quite add up.
It was not a marriage to last forever. In 2013, a year after the Manhattan-based nuptials, court records show a move to end the union. Though such records are restricted in New York, we do know that in the coming years, the partnership helped Uadla become a legal permanent resident and then citizen. And in 2019, she and Santos ended the union for good. Reporters who have visited Uadla’s house since her ex-husband became famous have staked out her block in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She has sometimes been seen walking quickly into or outside the house with a young child, and sometimes she or a woman who answers her buzzer will ask who it is and, when told it has something to do with George Santos, will say only “No. Good-bye.”
Agents had always cycled in and out of the Dish call center, leaving for other customer-service gigs or just disappearing without saying much. There was the impression that Santos may have been passed over for advancement or that, in some form or another, he didn’t get what he wanted at Dish. It seemed very millennial to Ritchie, this need to move up toward higher places quickly — Santos had been doing the work just a little under a year. But the call-center workers were not really sure they ever knew the real George Santos. One thing was clear: The work and the life offered at Dish was not the one for him. He left in July, and the next month he got married.
Everyone in New York aligns with some tribe eventually when they decide how they want to make a living. Another tribe was far away on Wall Street, for example, a world of fleece vests and well-tailored suits, a world Santos would later pretend he had been inhabiting when he was actually answering customer-service calls. Yet another tribe is an even more rarefied one whose members refuse to be held down by jealous roots, who are willing to make their money off a little of this and a little of that and simply waltz their way as best they can into whatever group strikes their fancy. That was the way for Santos. He would not be confined by plastic headsets and quality control. He might have been brethren with the immigrants and second-generation kids and outer-borough workers of the Dish call center, but he did not want to remain one of them. And so he went in search of a field that would bring him real fortune and maybe even fame.
Copyright © 2023 by Mark Chiusano. From the forthcoming book THE FABULIST by Mark Chiusano to be published by One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.