Leave a Message at the Beep
Once upon a time, I worked for an answering service. Unless you are above a certain age – one that involves looking at your own neck with much disdain and actually using the discount at Beall’s on Tuesdays, you probably don’t even know what an answering service is. In case that’s you, here’s the quick, millenialized explanation: an answering service is the prequel to voice mail – think of it as human voice mail. That’s right. There was a time in our ancient history when you dialed a number. It was called dialing because lots of people still did it using something called a rotary phone, which involved sticking your fingers in holes and rotating a wheel that corresponded with a number from zero to nine. That was before gel nails, too. Then you’d wait and eventually hear a ringing sound or a very annoying buzz on endless repeat which meant the person you were trying to reach was already speaking with someone else. There was no call-waiting, and there certainly wasn’t a feature as marvelous as caller ID. That’s why businesses and people hired an answering service. And that’s where my story and my hatred for the telephone begin…
The answering service I worked for was the only game in my hometown. It was situated in a detached, one-car garage on Pleasant Street, a hilly, residential street that meant you’d better be sure your car’s emergency brake worked and your standard transmission driving skills were up to par. During the busy morning hours, before doctors’ offices opened and at lunchtime, there were two operators on duty to answer 200 telephone lines. The clients ranged from medical offices and plumbers to large animal veterinarians, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the suicide and rape crisis hotlines for the county. Not only were the phones answered by a real live person, the messages were handwritten on little slips of paper, which were then time-stamped and filed in a small, horizontal filing cabinet alphabetically, according to client name.
There was no computer, no “Press three for Spanish,” option, and no hold music, either. It was all live operator, one or two of us depending on the time of day, trying to change our voice and demeanor to suit the instructions of each of the 200 clients, all of whom were hoping their customers would imagine they had a 24/7 receptionist on duty whose sole responsibility was to listen to the callers and transcribe complicated messages. And most of the time, that’s exactly what we did.
But being on the phone, answering two-hundred phone lines for eight to ten hours a day was exhausting, stressful, and difficult. As hard as it seems to believe, it was almost as physically taxing as it was mentally. And if you absolutely had to use the bathroom on the overnight shift when you worked alone in the chilly garage, you had to dash out of the building into the cold, up the stairs of the back porch of the business owner’s home, pee as fast as you could in a tiny bathroom off the kitchen, and wash your hands even faster because who wanted to careen back in through the heavy door only to see the light on the Suicide Crisis Hotline go out, meaning you’d missed a call from someone in a real crisis?
It was the kind of job that taught me a little bit of everything, from how to diffuse a difficult situation, to how to talk someone through a life-threatening illness. Among other things, I learned how to prioritize, what symptoms should absolutely not be ignored or wait until the office opens, the meaning of a ‘down cow,’ how to take an order for commercial yeast products, how to deal with a medical doctor who’d forgotten he was ‘on-call’ before having several cocktails with dinner, that spurned lovers want to be heard – even if they have to leave the message with an answering service operator, and why you might choose to call a funeral director instead of an ambulance when your elderly relative passes away at home.
For $3.35 an hour (no insurance benefits, thank you), I learned a lot about the human condition, the human psyche, the human body (and some of its extremely inelegant activities, emissions, and functions), the human spirit, and the human need to be heard. And I learned to loathe Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. I learned to hate the phone - that shared, clunky yellow, hand-held receiver which I now know was a veritable petri dish of vile germs. I hated the Plantronics headset, kept in a navy, blue plastic case between uses and never, ever cleaned. That contraption made me feel like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the Operator character, but it saved my neck and shoulder from the constant ache of hunching and holding in order to write down a phone message that I’d have to decipher later when the client decided to check in and pick up messages. I learned a lot about a lot of different businesses, and the stuff I learned certainly served me well throughout my life, but the thing I learned most was to hate the telephone with a white-hot passion.
Decades later, I haven’t gotten over the distaste for Alexander Graham Bell’s miracle that allowed us to communicate. I’ve lost friends, good ones, because I choose not to spend the few, precious hours I carve out of my day, getting a blow-by-blow account of the previous evening’s date, the conversation over lunch, or worst of all, the litany of gossip about the bit-players in someone else’s melodrama. It’s not that I don’t care about the caller; I think it’s the opposite. I do care about the caller – a lot - it’s just that I’d much rather get that information in nearly any other way at all besides through the magic of cellular transmission.
When I’m on the phone with you, I try to do nothing but listen and focus on our conversation, but that’s so hard to do when the little computer in each of our hands bloops and bleeps, wanting constant attention and instantaneous response. And while I may adore you and treasure your friendship, I absolutely do not want to hear your story while you’re gnawing away on a pineapple or peanut butter sandwich. After all, I doubt if you want to hear me slurp my afternoon chai latté or, god forbid, flush, while I tell you that my dog peed on the floor again or how I managed to put a giant run in my stockings before I’d even finished my morning cup of tea.
Please don’t think me insensitive; I love to connect with people in person and in writing. I love being able to see your face when you tell me something wonderful that happened to you, and I’d even rather be there when you share bad news, so I can cry with you if that’s what you need. And I read letters and cards over and over again – I even print and savor emails like a weird, modern-day Emily Dickinson treasuring whatever written correspondence we share and saving it for just long enough that you might think me a bit of a hoarder. But when it comes to the phone, it doesn’t matter how catchy the ring tone – I’d rather let the call go directly to my own answering service – which I guess is called Voice Mail these days.
So when you dial my digits and the call goes directly to voice mail, which I admit happens most of the time, please understand that I come by that idiosyncrasy honestly, and please be gentle with me. Just leave a message at the beep, and I’ll get back to you – it just might be by email, or text, or in-person, almost any way except by phone.
Wendy Dwyer is a woman of many hats. A full-time Associate Professor at Indian River State College, she serves as a creative consultant for a variety of nonprofit organizations in the area. She also writes regularly for Luminaries, STUART Magazine, and a variety of other publications.
The creative force behind a variety of unique and wildly successful fundraising programs locally, including the Jewelia Project, the “What’s in Your Bag?” Food Drive, and the Silver Bells Holiday Home Tour, Dwyer is an active volunteer in the community as well, serving as a founding board member of the Van Duzer Foundation, and assisting a variety of local charitable organizations including: Mustard Seed, HANDS/VIM, Southeast Florida Honor Flight, Creature Safe Place, the Inner Truth Project, Guardians for New Futures, Fort Pierce Jazz and Blues Society, the Sunrise Theatre Foundation, LifeBuilders of the Treasure Coast, Heathcote Botanical Gardens, United for Animals, and many others.
An award-winning writer, educator, and public relations professional, Dwyer is always willing to assist non-profit organizations and provide dynamic and engaging public relations trainings for Treasure Coast charities. Her book Asshats to Assets: How to Turn Crappy Jobs into Career Gold is available at www.amazon.com. When she is not working or volunteering, she enjoys writing, walking, and spending time with her husband Dan and a large variety of rescued animals at her rural home west of Fort Pierce.