OMAHA, NE—According to industry leaders, the nation's $7 billion phone-assisted-sales industry is thriving, with more than 450,000 desperately sad and lonely people standing by at this time, eagerly awaiting your call.

Despondent, suicidal service representatives assist customers.

"Call now from any rotary or touch-tone phone," said Charles Flannery, president of the American Association of Telephone Representatives, "and a friendless, deeply depressed wretch trapped in a sterile cubicle will be happy to assist you with your order, be it for flowers, magazine subscriptions or collector plates."

"Hi, Miraclean Cookware, this is Jill speaking, this call may be recorded for quality-assurance purposes, how may I help you?" a heavily medicated Jill Montrose, 41, intoned into her telephone handpiece, the pre-scripted greeting long stripped of any enthusiasm or inflection. Staring at the gray, fabric-like covering on the far wall of her cubicle, she again spoke into the lump of beige molded plastic in her hand after a 14-second pause: "Yes, ma'am, I'd be happy to process that order. Just to confirm, you'd like three of the Miraclean stainless-steel EZ-Broil pans at $22.95 each and one Miraclean Minute Wok at $31.95. Thank you, and have a nice day."

"I had to take this job to make the ends meet and whatnot after Gary left," said Montrose during her daily 3 to 3:10 p.m. break. "Gary brought out my psychiatric record in court and ended up with custody of the kids, so it's just me now." Taking an enormous draw on her unfiltered Kool, Montrose continued, "But I try to help with the kids' medical bills, because Gary's been barely getting by ever since the screen-door factory closed."

Added Montrose, "When the traffic is light, I get home before Grace Under Fire starts."

One of the many windowless buildings in which America's phone-service representatives toil.

Montrose is just one of the legions of friendless, gray-skinned flotsam whose ongoing misery keeps the phone-sales industry thriving. Matt Orman of Wixom, MI, fired from his job as an electrician following a nervous breakdown caused by his divorce, now works as a phone-sales representative with Continental Promotions in nearby Southfield.

"The ad in the paper said you can make $200 to $1,400 a week," Orman said. "Because, like, you make commissions when you sell extra stuff that the caller didn't ask for. I never made more than $250, though. I guess I'm bad at my job."

"I made $212 last week," Orman added. "I think I'll reward myself with this one magazine I've been thinking about getting."

Montrose and Orman are not alone. According to U.S. Labor Department statistics, a soaring number of pitiable, dead-eyed husks are finding steady work in the phone-sales industry. Almost 350,000 forgotten, utterly alone societal dregs worked in the field in 1998, up from 200,000 in 1995. In the first half of 1999, another 100,000 only-technically-alive shells joined their ranks.

Some experts feel the relationship is largely symbiotic.

"It stands to reason that a large-scale mail-order company would attract broken individuals," Wesleyan University sociologist Dr. Jonathan Kinnard said. "But beyond that, we see that the typical pathetic loser is well-suited to perform the repetitive and unchallenging tasks required by phone reception. Sitting in the same bare cubicle, repeating the same 10 lines from a script for 40 hours a week, every week with no vacation, would psychologically break a healthy person with any sort of zest for life. But the dead-eyed invertebrates of the world would be hard-pressed to think of a better job. Pet stores are filled with unfamiliar sights and smells, driving a vehicle carries too much responsibility, and libraries contain books. With phone sales, you've got your workspace that's not too small or too big, and you've got your phone and your script. It's perfect."

Added Kinnard, "Much like the way retarded people will watch the same TV show for the rest of their lives, even when they've seen every episode 20 times, these spiritually empty drones retreat into the safety of the familiar and unstimulating, lest they are forced to confront an outside world of ambiguity and potential rejection. Euthanasia would be the most humane treatment of these walking tragedies. But on the other hand, when I want to order something off an infomercial, who else is going to take my credit-card number?"