Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Hello, my name is . . ."

Way back a long time ago I used to work in a catalog call center at a place that rhymes with H. P. Henney. It was a fun job, for the most part. For the lesser part, it sucked. Hour after hour I was forced to sit in a chair listening to call after call of products and descriptions from people who didn't know what an item number was, much less what state they lived in. "Hello, this is H. P. Henney, how may I help you?" I'd like to place an order. "What is your name and address?" Uhhhhhh . . . 

We'd been trained to verify all information in a very thorough and robotic manner, and to repeat the letters that preceded each item number with examples such as: "Is that B like Bob, or V like Victory?" Sometimes I rebelled and skipped all that crap, but then I'd get a call scan and find myself in some manager's office where I was reminded of procedure. Then they'd get out a list of how many times I'd been late to work. Which was many.

It paid well.

The call center was located past a huge set of corporate pomp and circumstance, way back in the warehouse in a stuffy upstairs room with cubicles lined up in rows. Once you stamped your time card and shoved it in the wall slot you belonged to these folks. You breathed each others' air, listened to each others' chatter, became one big yipping, call-taking conglomerate of misery. Sometimes I felt crazy with all those voices in my ear. I'd escape to the bathrooms and sit in a stall and wish the time away. 

This time of year it was particularly busy at the call center. There was no such thing as time off. You didn't get sick, you didn't take a vacation, you didn't even die. If you did, they'd prop you up to a phone and stick a pen in your hand. Sometimes, there weren't even any places to sit. They'd stock the center like we were cattle waiting for slaughter, just in case of that 'one missed call.' When you did find an open cubicle, the real fun began. Everything was out of stock or on backorder. Folks bought by trends. No brain cells required. Just—buy, buy, buy. You could almost place their orders for them: "A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Doll and a Starter Jacket." Thugs were killing for that stuff out in the real world, and yet mothers frantically called in, desperate to get said item for their precious little kid. And they'd get real mad when you told them their order wouldn't be in for weeks. They'd continue with every size and color known to man. "You really want an XXL jacket with burnt orange trim?" Yes! "Well, it's out too so . . . Hey, would you like some gift wrap to go with that out-of-stock order?" The the other thing we were required to do—sell gift wrap. I really sucked at selling that gift wrap.

But out of all the frantic calls for toys and clothes and drapes and sheets and couch covers, a call would come in from some looney, and it was just what I needed to keep sane. Can you turn to page fifty and tell me what you see? I'd turn to page fifty. Bras, underwear, slips. "Uh, what do you see, sir?" Heavy breathing, long pause. He wanted me to say panties. It'd get him off. Loser. Eventually, he'd get me to say it, but it was hard, real hard to say 'panties' without laughing. I'd stretch those calls out forever. I don't know why. The loonies entertained me. The fact that they were so affected by underwear and all its glorious verbiage tickled the hell out of me. But eventually I had to end the call, ending with a *69 so the company could track them down.

And then I'd get suicide calls. Those people wanted to talk your life away, in hopes that it'd save theirs. I did the best I could. I mean, I was a little bit depressed too so who was I to pass out advice? I just sat there and listened as long as I could. In time, a manager would come by and ask why I wasn't taking any orders, and I'd have to get the guy or gal to shut up about their life. I'd tell them everything was going to be okay. Maybe I'd end it with a quote from Bob Dylan or something. Always felt bad about those calls. 

But it was a job, you know? A stupid, crummy job that paid decent and let me afford a car, and a weekly box of cigarettes, and lots and lots of music.

Eventually the place closed down, because now people could place their orders online. That's life. But somewhere in the back of that long, lonely warehouse is a room with voices that still echo. One of them is mine.

photo credit: spike55151 via photopin cc


  1. Oh wow - Amy a job, I feel so sorry for people who have to work in call centres, but laughed out loud when I read about that loony call. Years ago when my daughter worked in the bank, this creepy little bloke rang up and said, I'd love to see you girls dressed in black lacy stockings ..... her colleague on the phone said,' Just one moment, I'll put you through to Joyce - that's her department,.' put the phone back on the hook and collapsed laughing. Helps you get through the day xx

    1. "I'll put you through to Joyce . . ." : ) I wish we'd had her!

  2. Now I'm depressed! Thank gawd I've never had to work in a place like that. Even now I feel sorry for young people who cold-call trying to sell me something I don't want; unfortunately the only way to be rid of them is either to be rude, or just slam the phone down.

    1. I had to do the cold calling too, but always felt bad for the people on the other end. Most of the time they were trying to eat dinner or watch evening tv, and here I was trying to make them buy something. Don't blame you for hanging up!


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