I recently started working for a telemarket research company. This means that I call people at home, and ask them questions about things they’ve already bought. It’s sort of like being a telemarketer, except it seems to really confuse people that I’m not selling anything. I like that. This is a story about my first full night on the job. I changed any personal information, like names of people or companies, but those are the only changes I’ve made.
I was asked if we ever call during business hours (we don’t). I was told about someone who rented the car but never got to drive it. I got to hear about a man who rented a small car that sat lower than his car at home does but he got used to it after a few miles, but then had to pull over to the side of the road after it got dark because he couldn’t find the headlights while he was driving (he found them). I heard about a woman who needed to get in touch with the local branch because she left a CD in the car. I got to hear about how great the customer service at the branch in Tampa is, and how that guy who works the counter is always so excited and calls everyone by name because he’s really good at remembering names even if you’ve only been there once before (coincidentally, she couldn’t remember his name).
I called a man, and got his answering machine. I could have just coded that it was an answering machine, and moved on. But I didn’t, because I heard an old man singing. It wasn’t the usual answering machine music, like Simon and Garfunkel or The Black-Eyed Peas. It was the voice of the man I was calling. He was singing something that sounded like “You Are My Sunshine,” but the melody had been slightly changed. The words, too, were changed a fair bit. This man did not sound like he was, or ever had been, a professional musician. I couldn’t understand everything that he was singing, and the entire musical interlude couldn’t have lasted more than ten or twenty seconds. Then, his speaking voice cut in, and he said “Hello, Paige,” and went on to say that he was sorry that he missed her call.
His answering machine message, the haunting song and the message about not being able to get to the phone were written to one woman. Maybe his wife, or sister, or daughter. It could have even just been an old friend. But she was the only person important enough for him to bother leaving her a message. She might have been the only one who ever called him. He sounded genuinely happy that she was calling him, and was truly sorry that he wasn’t able to get to the phone in time. I wasn’t supposed to hear that, I’m just a guy who makes minimum wage calling people at home.
The love I heard in his words, in his valiant attempts to stay on tune…I can’t describe them. This woman might have been the only reason he even kept his phone connected. I was so happy that I didn’t talk to him, that I didn’t have to hear the disappointment in his voice after I said “hello.” I would have never understood. I might not have even noticed that he sounded disappointed. Maybe he wouldn’t have been upset. Maybe he would be happy that he got to talk with me, and answer my questions, and I would sit there and silently nod while he talked about his car that didn’t have an ice scraper, or that sat too low to the ground, only being able to tell this man “I understand,” when I very well know that I don’t understand, and I don’t care, because I just want to get through the questions so I can call someone else.
I mentioned the call to my supervisor, right before I left for the night. “Mark ‘Answering Machine’ and move on. You have to keep your calls per hour up.” That’s it? This man has an answering machine message for someone who may be the only person he ever talks to, and all I’m supposed to do is mark that I got his answering machine so someone else can call him back in the next couple of days? How desensitized to the world do you have to be that your only response is “Be more efficient?” Is that what this company does? It just makes you not care, not give a damn about anything other than getting questions answered so a national chain of rental cars gets what they’re paying for?
We have computers now. That’s what they’re for. Computers don’t care about the man’s answering machine, they wouldn’t imagine the old man hearing the phone, and shuffling in for it, tripping over the threshold or the recliner, and lying there, injured, slowly realizing he’s not going to answer the phone, a man who might die there on the living room floor and his only thought being that he couldn’t get to the phone to talk to Paige that night, only wanting to get to hear her voice one last time, not knowing that it wasn’t Paige on the other end of the line, but rather Scott White calling from a telemarket research company on behalf of car rentals. And the last thing she would ever hear from him would be his answering machine, him singing that pretty, off-tune song about how happy she makes him. Maybe after the third or fourth time she called, she’d realize he wasn’t answering the phone.
Paige and I might be the only two people who have ever heard that song.
I can’t stay at this job. I could have calls like this all the time, and that frightens me. I might even get used to them, and that frightens me even more.