By Sean Wilkinson
Directory assistance for Hell
I’m all for the automation of certain aspects of life. I like the fact that I hardly ever have to speak to a real bank teller, that I can perform all my transactions at an automated teller machine, and that I can keep an eye on my account online. I like paying bills with automatic deductions from my account. Bring on the retina scans and implanted microchips – as long as it’s done with efficiency and intelligence.
If the powers behind these revolutions need an example of poorly executed automation, please consider 411, the “automated” phone Information number.
First of all, it costs money. Something like $1 for every time I dial those three digits on my phone. I would gladly pay the money, and probably use the service more often, if the funding was tangibly applied to the efficacy of the process. They could make me happier by implementing a simple rule: if they don’t find the number or the call is dropped, it’s free. I have had several 411 calls just disappear from my cell phone before I find the number I’m looking for. If I’m not near a phonebook or a computer, that means calling back and paying a dollar again. And if the friendly and helpful operator fails to find my number for me, I still get charged.
I asked them once, actually, “Since you didn’t find the number, am I still charged a dollar for this call?”
“Yes, sir, because we had to look up the number.”
“But you didn’t find it”
“It’s not in the computer, sir.”
“Well, you don’t have to try very hard for a dollar.”
“Can I help you with something else today, sir?”
I should have asked for another number just for the satisfaction of getting something in return for my dollar.
When I call 411, I get a computer recording that says, in the same sickeningly sweet voice every time, “411 local and national info. Say city and state, or other services.” You can hear the fake smile. You can almost smell the sunless tanning lotion and Aquanet® hairspray.
They usually recognize what I say here. “Portland, Maine,” for instance.
“OK! What listing, please?”
I speak clearly into the phone and tell the machine what I’m looking for. They never hear this part. I know it’s just some gum-chewing, slack-jawed, bored cubicle rat somewhere listening to my recorded blurb of city and state and listing, but I am never connected, and the sickeningly sweet voice chirps, “OK! One moment please…”
Then the bored gum-chewer answers in a mumble, dripping with contempt for his job and his Geo Storm with a door painted primer gray. “What listing in Portland, Maine…”
I decide to find an answer to my question. “If I always just get connected to an operator anyway, why do I have to tell the computer what I’m looking for?”
“I don’t know, sir. What listing in Portland Maine?”
“I mean, it’s basically doubling the amount of time that I spend on the phone with you. I have to tell you the listing twice. Sometimes I have to say the city and state again, too.”
“Sir, what listing can I get for you in Portland, Maine.”
I don’t recall how the conversation went from there, but I didn’t get an answer.
A few months ago I called 411 from South Station in Boston to get the number of a venue my companion and I were headed to in Cambridge. Thankfully, time was not an issue, because this was the longest exchange I have ever experienced with 411.
I called and heard a disturbing sound: the distinct strains of “Hail to the Chief” played by a brass band and cranked so loud it was crackling in my ear. Then, in a voice that made the usual sickeningly sweet tone seem downright nasty, an ebullient person said, “Happy Presidents Day from Cingular Wireless!” This was followed by the familiar, sickening, “411 local and national info…”
Still dumbfounded by the “Hail to the Chief,” I stood there, mouth agape, long enough for the computer to prompt, “I’m sorry! We didn’t hear you! What city and state, please!?”
“OK! What listing, please!?”
“T.T. the Bear’s”
“One moment, please!” … (bored cubicle rat) “What listing in Cambridge?”
Son of a… “T. T. THE. BEARRRRS.”
“Onemomentplease… thankyouhaveaniceday.” (Cheap, watery Dunkin Donuts coffee breath mumbling into the phone.)
Then, to my horror, “Hail to the Chief” started playing again! That sickening, nasty voice returned: “Have a GREAT Presidents’ Day from Cingular Wireless!” What the hell is wrong with this company!? Just connect me to the damn number!
It was a success. The call was connected and the phone on the other end started ringing. Once, twice, three times…
“Hello, Build A Bear, how can I direct your call?”
Oh my frigging ass shit. I sat on the phone through two rounds of “Hail to the Cheif,” two Presidents’ Day messages, and repeated what I was looking for twice. I did not get connected to the venue I was looking for. I got connected to a store in the mall that lets spoiled little fat-faced kids shove cotton stuffing in a floppy bear carcass and then dress it up like David Ortiz so it can sit on a shelf and gather uninspiring dust.
I called 411 again. I won’t put you through the process again. It’s bad enough that I had to go through it myself. Suffice it to say that it was still Presidents’ Day. I got the number this time, though. I stood proud and triumphant on that fine Presidents’ Day in that fair city, listening to the phone ring and ring and ring. An answering machine picked up to say that the bar was closed. My vision narrowed, turned red, faded to black. I heard people screaming and the next thing I remember is waking up in jail…
To be continued…