Thank You For Calling 311

by Karen Baddeley

My unemployment was due to run out in a month so the civil service people had me up against a wall. I showed up to the interview 20 minutes early. The girl who interviewed me looked 20 years old and wore flip flops with her business suit. She read me questions off a sheet of paper.

“How important to you is providing good customer service?”

“Very important. I know how frustrating it can be to speak to someone on the phone who seems unconcerned and checked-out and I want to change all that.”

She wrote down “very.”

“How would you deal with an angry caller?”

“I would be very patient; I would try to let them voice their concerns and then do anything I could to help them.”

She wrote down “patient.”

“What is your attitude about showing up late to work or calling out?”

“I try never to be late. I think it’s acceptable to call out if you’re truly sick or if someone in your family dies.”

“We never find it acceptable to show up late,” she told me. “In fact, you should be at least 30 minutes early for each of your shifts.”

“What if I get sick?”

She sighed. “You’re not going to last at this job if you’re calling in sick all the time.”

“Oh, I hardly ever get sick. I was just curious.”

I got the job. The girl called me the next day to tell me about training.

“Monday-Friday, 8:30-4:30. You need to arrive half an hour early. If you show up just one minute late the trainers will lock the doors on you and you will be ineligible for the future Call Center Representative civil service tests. And if you call out for any reason at any time during the training, you will be ineligible.”

Like I said, they had me against a wall.

I had to be there at 8 AM for training which meant I had to leave my apartment at 7 and actually wake up at 6 so I could eat breakfast, get ready and walk the dog before I left. It was February; the sun wasn’t even up when the alarm went off. I tried to take my dog out for his walk and he immediately turned around to go back.

But I got there, 30 minutes early. The trainers were 20 minutes late. I waited for them in the lobby with my fellow trainees. No one spoke. I was the only white person.

I sat in the front row next to a girl named Laura who wouldn’t stop coughing. Not a minute would go by without a cough. Maybe it was a nervous habit. As we settled in, she said to me, confidentially, “Girl, this class is so early I am mortified! Do you know the definition of the word mortified? Because I am mortified!” I came to know that Laura did not know the definition of the word mortified. I also learned that it was her favorite word. Throughout the two weeks she would tell me things like “I was so sore after yoga! I was mortified!” and “If I don’t have my coffee in the morning I will be mortified!”

The first half of the day was a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of being on time and not calling out for any reason. I thought that if I took notes on everything, it would help me stay awake. But I started to feel my body giving up. The room was so cold and windowless and all I could think about was how my bed was soft and snuggly. I looked up at the clock. Five hours to go.

So I started to write an erotic letter to a married man I had a crush on and tried to make it look like I was taking diligent notes. But I got too turned on and was also concerned that someone might read over my shoulder. So that was out.

We were allowed a 30-minute lunch break which was really at breakfast time. They had a cafeteria on the first floor of the building in Lower Manhattan. It reminded me of college when I lived in the dorms except that I was never up early enough for breakfast in college. I took scrambled eggs, sausages and fruit from the buffet. My thinking was that if I just ate protein and other healthy foods, I would be able to stay awake. I didn’t drink coffee. I never liked the taste. But maybe now would be a good time to develop a love for it.

The other trainees sat at a table with each other and talked and laughed like old friends. I ate alone. All I wanted was my paycheck and to go home. I had to interest in socializing. Their happiness was irritating to me.

The second half of the day was all about the history of 311. There was a picture on the PowerPoint of Mayor Bloomberg.

A man in the row behind me started to drift off.

“Jacob!” the trainer shouted. “If you fall asleep I’m throwing your ass out of here!” The trainer was a tall, wan Russian man named Yevgeny. “That goes for all of you,” he added.

By the end of the day I was crazed by mental and physical exhaustion. I tried going to the bathroom every hour so that I would be forced to stand up and walk about. I wondered if I could take a 5-minute nap while I sat on the toilet lid. I wondered if that would really help.

Training began to remind me of jail. I had only been in jail a few days in my life for protesting the Republican National Convention. They said I was inciting a riot. There were no windows in jail and the florescent lights were constantly turned on. You began to lose all sense of time and become hyper-sensitive to sound and smell.

“It’s very disorienting,” I explained to my therapist that evening. Tears started to run down my face. She tried to comfort me by saying “It’s only two weeks…”

The next day we began to learn about different types of calls. Noise complaints were the most common.

The City accepts complaints about noise from neighbors. Officers from your local precinct will respond when they are not handling emergencies.

That was what we had to read to the caller before we could start to take their complaint.

Yevgeny explained, “If you don’t read the detailed description, you’ll have points taken off your QA score.”

QA was Quality Assurance. You start with 100 points and they start deducting points for mistakes you make as the Call Center Representative. You got points taken off for “tone of voice,” but not for telling a customer to fuck off. You can do that. Just don’t hang up on them after you say it or you’ll get points taken off. And don’t show up late.

“Your introduction always has to be the same,” Yevgeny told us. “Say ‘Thank you for calling Three-One-One. This is (and say your name), how can I help you today?’” We all nodded our heads. “And never say Three-Eleven! It’s always Three-One-One.”

The other trainer, Germaine, cut in “But you can mix it up a little if you like. Like you can say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ before your introduction.” Germaine was a tall West Indian woman with braids. I liked her.

A girl in the row next to me raised her hand and asked “But what do we say if it’s evening?”

Germaine rolled her eyes. “You can say ‘Good evening’ Jennifer.”

Jennifer was very concerned about doing a good job. She told us all that she wanted to be a social worker and that she really wanted to help people. She would work herself into such a frenzy of good customer service that I thought she might go completely mad one day. Even Germaine and Yevgeny were concerned.

“Jennifer,” Germaine told her. “Everyone has moments where they just snap at a caller. All you need to remember is to show up on time and don’t call out sick. You’ll be all set if you just keep that in mind.”

The idea of anyone snapping at a caller seemed to upset Jennifer a great deal. She repeated, “I just want to do a good job! I just want to do a good job!”

Jennifer smiled all the time and was very popular amongst the other trainees. She often set up events for happy hour so everyone could hang out. I was asked to go but I was always too tired and completely disinterested.

Jennifer approached me one day after work. “Why do you always look so serious all the time?” she asked me. “It makes you look mean.”

“Thank you for saying that. It makes me want to smile all the time and be cheerful,” I told her.

She looked shocked and then like she might cry. I did not apologize because I wasn’t sorry. Her enthusiasm for this job was sickening to me.

I thought of telling her that it wasn’t anything personal. That this was just a job to me and I wasn’t interested in making it a part of my social life. But I didn’t say it because even though it was all true, I still didn’t like her. She ran off to go home.

During the second week of training there was a blizzard overnight. I cursed everyone in New York City government as I tried to make my way up to the A train. “Of course they didn’t plow the streets up here,” I thought. “We’re just poor brown people to them!” I wasn’t really brown but I was poor and that is why I was killing myself to get to this terrible training session. The snow was so deep that it was coming over the tops of my rain boots. An old woman coming out of the YMCA trying to make her way to her Access-a-Ride fell down in front of me. Normally I would have stopped and helped her, saw to it that she was okay. But I was so worried that the blizzard was going to throw off my schedule that I just trudged past her. I could lose my job and there was no unemployment left.

I made my way up the hill of Bennett Avenue. I was only one block away from the station but every time the wind blew I was blasted in the face with snow. It stung. I thought about just lying down and going to sleep.

I made it to the train station and, surprisingly, the train arrived as soon as I got to the platform. I felt blessed by God. I was still on schedule. My pants were completely soaked and mascara was smeared all over my face, but I was going to be on time.

Everyone was in the training room at their assigned seats but Jennifer. Even the Germaine and Yevgeny were on time. The minutes passed by but Jennifer did not appear. We all watched the clock silently. At exactly 8:30 Yevgeny shut the door and locked it.

“Everyone else was on time. It’s not fair to you all to make an exception for her.”

No one said anything.

The day’s lesson was dealing with mentally ill callers.

“Now,” Yevgeny began. “When someone says they’re being poisoned by the Mayor, you gotta take that seriously and transfer to 911. But if they say they’re marrying him, that’s another story.”

There was a timid knock at the door about three minutes into the lesson. Poor Jennifer. Maybe she lived somewhere really far away like the Bronx. Germaine went outside to speak to her.

We all knew it was curtains for her. I couldn’t understand what she was saying but she was making the high-pitched sound of a girl trying to cry and talk at the same time. Germaine came inside a couple of minutes later. Jennifer was gone.

“This should just serve as a reminder to you all: be on time and don’t call out. If you remember that, you’ll be successful at this job.”