Appeasing Mr Connelly
By Glenn Diaz
When Alvin Estrada found himself on the receiving end of the guttural lecture, he thought about empathy. Not the emotional capacity per se, not the symbolic pressing of palm against chest, the sincere curling of lips to mouth a word of comfort, but the recommended verbiage under "Empathy" from page 5 of the ring-bound Manual for UTelCo Customer Care Associates: "I understand."
And so he said so: "I understand, sir."
But contrary to what the manual suggested, he didn't tailor-fit the pronouncement to suit the customer's concern, didn't rephrase his sentence to capture the need. What he did do, which wasn't in the manual, was inject, without meaning to, an unmistakably servile tone of apology in his voice; uttering a slow, dejected drawl that communicated, in his mind, the abject heartbreak he felt when this old geezer didn't receive his bill for September and was, as a result, charged the $14.95 late fee.
"This is just inexcusable, you know? I'm a hardworking man. I work for every dollar I bring to this home. Sure, I can just pay the 15 bucks. What's the big deal, right? Who has the time these days? What do I care? But you know what, it's the principle of the thing. It's not the money. It's the prin-ci-ple. This country is built on principle. Remember that."
"I understand, sir."
This exchange, made possible by three-inch-thick undersea fiber optic cables, was taking place from the 32nd floor of a skyscraper in Makati in the Philippines to the kitchen of a two-bedroom brownstone in Elkhart, Indiana. The building had emerald green windows that glistened with a bronze-like patina when hit by moonlight. The kitchen was yellow-lit out of four pewter wall sconces that the caller's wife had insisted on installing despite their uselessness in food preparation.
"I grew up on those values, you know? I work at Thor Motor six days a week, ten hours a day, just so me and my wife can retire in peace," here he wheezed, which told Alvin Mr Connelly used to smoke and may have stopped a few years ago due to a pulmonologist's orders, "I saw my phone bill and I thought, 'Wait a second, why don't I take a look at what these people are charging me for a change?'
Alvin cleared his throat.
"It's a good thing I did, too. You know why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause all these charges, they really add up. Let's see here." And here, the rustling of paper zoomed at 2.88 terabit per second from Indiana to southern California, then across the Pacific to Taipei, then toward the South China Sea to a landing post in Nasugbu town in Batangas province, before reaching Makati.
"I understand your frustration, sir."
The conversation harked back to an ancient relationship, and intuitively, perhaps as a second, dormant nature, both players knew their roles. One heaved and the other appeased; one raised his voice and the other mumbled a scripted apology. English was for Mr Connelly a language learned in coos from the cradle; for Alvin, through laborious nursery rhymes and unnatural cursing.
In another era, there must have been that moment when blue eyes met brown eyes for the first time, too. From the sea, moments after weather-beaten sails were taken down from the main mast and the ships docked to a standstill, the fair-skinned occupants must have waded through turquoise water, their breeches and doublets submerged in foreign salinity. And from land, cautious brown feet must have traipsed along the sandy shore, gold-lined vests glaring in the sun, fire-hardened bamboo stakes clutched in fists, after town criers, the umalohokan, shouted of the giant triangular outlines bobbing in the horizon.
Alvin listened intently to the rustling of paper.
"Let me see here."
Philip, Alvin's seatmate, opened a big bag of Lays. The sound sliced the 12-degree air with a sea-saltiness that registered audibly. Heads turned. Eating was forbidden in stations, and Alvin smiled at his friend's little trespass. He reclined in his posture chair, which noisily released air, burdened by the extra weight. The rim of the contraband pack was tapped twice against his backrest: "You want some?" The universal smell of junk food wafted in the air.
Alvin shook his head no and closed his eyes. The light was too bright, too adamant for 2 in the morning. He would've put on his sunglasses if they weren't banned on the floor. Too many agents now went on autopilot; half-sleep, they sat up straight, one hand on the mouse, absently clicking.
"Carrier Line Charge, Universal Connectivity Charge, Interstate Access Charge, 911 Service Fee. I don't understand any of those. No, sir, I don't. But when I got to the last line right here," and here, more rustling, "A-ha! What do we have here? A late charge? That, I understand. But why? So I did a little backpedalling, you know? Did a little mental review. Was I amiss with my bills last month? Did I miss anything? I couldn't even remember so I picked up the phone, got through the run-around with all the buttons you press, then finally got to talk to a live person – a very nice one, by the way, where are you from? It's hard to pin down your accent – and then I finally remembered. Wait a minute. I don't think I got my bill last month! That's right. Elaine, my eldest daughter, she works for Oprah, yes. She was in town from Chicago," here, he hummed, "around three weeks ago, and I was very busy. I didn't have time to check my bills, but I should've seen—I should've!—it if it came in the mail. Janice couldn't have taken it. She can't even remember to—"
Alvin swivelled back and forth in his chair, making dizzy half-circles. From one end of the pendulum, he could see Philip's 265-pound body spilling from the chair's rubber armrests, hunched primate-like in front of the computer, fingers gingerly digging inside the yellow bag of Lays on his lap. From the other, his supervisor Eric sat at the very end of the blue spine, also hunched, his bald head lined with a silver headset that against the darkness of the Plexiglas window looked like a halo. In between, a haze made hazier by Mr Connelly's droning grandpa voice, the lecture now on its 35th minute.
"You. You're quite young. How old are you, 24, 25? When I was your age, a gallon of gas was 80 cents, Rick Mears still raced in the Indianapolis 500, and Brenda Ann Spencer shot those elementary school kids from her window in San Diego. Remember that? Your folks will probably do."
Philip, haze, Eric.
"It was quite sick, what happened. I remember because it was Elaine's second birthday. You know how old that Brenda Ann Spencer was at that time? Sixteen. Six-teen! She had been looking out when she saw the school kids in front of the school gate. Then she got a handgun and started shooting at 'em. Like ducks on Lake Michigan," and here he laughed, almost amiably, "oh Lake Mich," he coughed. "You see I went hunting during my day, and I understand things get attractive from afar. I do. Golden eyes, buffleheads, mallards. Oh boy. Just imagine. A big moose in the middle of that crosshair and you can do something to it without touching it from half a mile."
Eric, haze, Philip.
"Anyway, when the cops questioned her, know what she said? 'I don't like Mondays.' 'I wanted to liven things up.' Isn't that just the craziest thing you've ever heard? Really, you just never know what goes on in people's minds nowadays, do you? You really don't. Oscar, amazing fella', can change a flat in less than 90 seconds, he got married last week, then went off to Oahu for the honeymoon. Not supposed to be back until two weeks from Monday, OK? But there he was at the garage earlier. Unbelievable. You know what happened? You know? He found out she's no longer a virgin." Here, Alvin pounced.
"I understand, Mr Connelly. Since you claim that you failed to receive a copy of your bill last month, I will give you a one-time credit of $14.95, which you will see on your next billing statement. I'm sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you. I will be taking note of everything so that it doesn't happen again."
Page 9 under "Apology."
Page 10 under "Assurance."
"I appreciate that. I am sure I didn't get a bill last—"
"Now please stay on the line so I can give you a confirmation number as proof of this transaction."
"That would be –"
"Thank you. Please hold."
Much relieved, Alvin hit "Hold music" onscreen. He stopped swivelling, stood up, and, careful not to mess the black cord that connected his head to the phone in his desk, walked a few steps toward Philip's station. He reached for his bag of chips, except there was nothing but warm air inside, bone-white powdery bits that clung to the bag's silver corners. Alvin gave Philip a look that he hoped communicated this feeling of betrayal, this accusation: you ate everything? Philip, who was in a call, looked forlornly toward his friend's direction, shook his head, and mouthed "Wala na, wala na, sorry." Alvin took the bag, curled it into a ball, and threw it in the small trash bin between their stations. He narrowed his eyes and started throwing light karate punches on Philip's broad left arm.
Philip paid him no heed. He looked regretful, staring at his screen as if the customer could see his face. "Needless to say, Miss Anderson we are doing everything we can—" he stopped and sighed; he was cut off.
Alvin continued the playful fisticuff, aiming to distract his friend from what looked to be a difficult call. Just then, the operations manager, a burly Texan named Brock, happened to pass by the carpeted walkway and saw what Alvin was doing. Brock stopped in his tracks and came toward the station. Alvin saw the aggressive gait, and terror quickly descended down his chest. Frazzled, he quickly returned to his seat. The comprehensive lighting scheme in the floor precluded the possibility of shadows, but somehow Alvin knew that Brock was standing right behind him. When the hefty Caucasian cleared his throat, it sent a firm chill that entered Alvin's semi-covered ears and terminated in his gut.
It was a reprimand so loud, and Brock had not even opened his mouth. In between the plastic spines and the miles of invisible cable, everything became deathly quiet. Except for the subdued din of simultaneous one-way conversations, the clattering of keyboards, and the polyphony of ringing of phones, the call center floor sounded like a stolid one-note sonata.
And here, in the rare contact between frontliner and executive, between foot soldier and commander, the floor's uncaring drone became, for Alvin, even more callous. When Brock walked away, it was only then when he resumed breathing.
He had barely recovered when he realised Mr Connelly had hung up. According to his onscreen digital phone, the call had been "wrapping" for close to five minutes, far longer than the 30-second limit for call documentation.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Shit, shit, shit, shit."
Panicking, he hit "Avail" onscreen, and at once he heard a short beep. The last fuck and shit had barely escaped his lips when he recited, in an anxious rapid fire, a quick introduction of himself and an ardent-sounding desire to help this stranger on the other line.
"Thank you for calling UTelCo Consumer Services. My name is Alvin. How can I help you today?"
"What?" barked a tired-sounding baritone.
Alvin cleared his throat, wet his lips.
"This is UTelCo, sir. How can I help you?"
"I don't, I can't, I mean, I cannot understand you."
"Can I have your phone number starting with area code please?"
"What? Is this, is this UTelCo?"
"Yes, it is."
The infirmed faintness of the voice, the sharp breaths that divided the words told Alvin that it was another old man; this one without the grandpa warmth of Mr Connelly, without the tenderness that the decades normally paint over erstwhile ragged spirits.
Here, Mr Livingston snapped, "Am I calling, have I reached, is this India?"
"This is not India, sir."
"Where are you located?"
"UTelCo offices are located in Naperville, Illinois."
Page 18 under "Disclosure of location."
Alvin had always uttered this sentence with machine-like automation, that when he now paused and thought about the lie that it stoically offered, his true surroundings clarified to him like a splash of vivid watercolour. He was suddenly aware of his tar-black headset, the citrusy smell of his seatmate's perfume, this 2 o'clock silence. He realised that in an ageing bungalow in San Juan, his mother was sleeping beside Sophia, her sister Marie's firstborn. He realised that two short jeepney rides away was a brick medium-rise, on the third floor of which he used to report to every week, writing for a fledgling Village Voice-type broadsheet. He realised that after his shift, he would wiggle inside a crowded elevator then exit through the skyscraper's petite metal doors, that he would go out of the building and take off his Nike windbreaker. He knew that the tropical sun would be prickly on his arms and neck, that the asphalt in EDSA, where he would take a bus home, would swelter like a desert.
"Naperville, eh?" Mr Livingston continued, taunting, "How's the weather there?"QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012