Warm Voice, Cold Calls
by Morris Marshall
“Hi, I’m Niko, and I’m calling from Opinions Are Us, a market research firm. We’re currently conducting surveys on the Banking Industry in your area, and I was wondering if you could please answer a few—”
“I’m having dinner with my family. Why do you guys always call at this time?”
“I’m sorry, sir. Is there a better time when I can call back?”
“How about when Hell freezes over? In the meantime, why don’t you go there?” Click.
Two years ago, a rejection like that would have crushed me. You have to have a thick skin in this business and, although it’s taken time, I’ve developed one. You expect the people you’re calling to be somewhat upset. Who wouldn’t be? You’re cornering their time and offering nothing in return except a “Thank you.” You promise respondents that surveys take ten minutes when they really take twenty-five.
I hang up the phone. Friday nights before a holiday weekend are the worst; everyone’s out partying. Not that it really matters. When I first started doing phone surveys — “interviews” is the official name — hardly anyone had a cell phone. You had to catch them at home.
Now you can do a survey almost anywhere, but that hasn’t helped me tonight. Thanksgiving is on Sunday, but I don’t feel very thankful. All I’ve managed in three hours is fifty “no answers,” ten rejections, a spattering of “Not in services” and only one completed survey with an 80-year old guy whose wife recently died of cancer.
I like calling British Columbia (604 area code) and getting a “Not in service.” The male recording has a deep, dreamy voice resembling Cary Grant. “I’m sorry, the number you have reached is not in service. Please hang up and try...”
“Hey, Mary,” I say to the college student on the phone next to me, “I’ve got your ‘Vancouver Honey’ on the line. He wants to talk to you.” I quickly press the receiver to her ear.
“Sexy,” she says and giggles. “I wonder if he’s single.”
“I’ll ask him next time I get him on the phone.”
In this industry, you find ways to speed up the time. Joking and going to the bathroom are popular. You can easily waste ten minutes in the loo, but supervisors are careful to limit breaks to one fifteen-minute break per night and a half-hour lunch. They watch to make sure we’re not talking on our cell phones or texting. The supervisors have a pet name for workers who like to get up and roam while on the job. They call them “Walkertons.” No one really wants to work here. We’re all biding time until something better comes along.
I stretch my legs, stand up and walk into the small kitchen where the pop machine is located. Coca Cola is lit up again as sold out. Everyone in our office is hopped up on caffeine. How else are you going to stay awake? You can’t get Coke unless you work the day shift; by evening it’s gone. You’d think that by now the supervisors would learn to buy more Coke and less Orange Crush. Who drinks Orange Crush anyway?
“Niko, what are you doing? It’s only eight o’clock. Break time’s not for another half-hour.” It’s Mike, a tall, thin thirty-something supervisor with glasses, bad acne and a mullet. He always wears a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, faded stonewashed jeans and, as far as he’s concerned, it’s still 1975.
“I need something to keep me awake,” I say.
“Can you please go back to your station? We need two more females, aged 30-49 years from Ontario, to close out this survey. You don’t want another verbal warning, do you?”
I give Mike a mock salute. “Nay, Captain, my captain.” Dead Poets Society is still one of my all-time favorite movies.
In his other life, Mike is a bass guitarist in Mitzvah, a heavy metal bar band that’s hoping to hit it big. I saw them practice once; they were good, but I didn’t tell Mike. I didn’t want to puff up his ego any more than necessary. He’s been working here ten years; we started the same week. We were friends and did surveys in adjacent booths before he was promoted to Night Shift Supervisor five years ago.
The same week he was promoted, he cited me for not dialing fast enough. With manual dialing, your fingers get cramped and killing by the end of the night. Since we got automatic dialing two years ago, you simply press a button and the computer dials for you.
After several more “No answers” and rejections, I decide I’ll dial one more number before taking a bathroom break. There’s a connection and ringing. Four rings...five...six...I’m about to hang up when I hear a click.
“Hello?” a famiiar-sounding female voice says. There’s conversation in the background.
I give her my spiel, carefully reading the words on the screen verbatim. One of the worst offences you can commit is spontaneity. The supervisors monitor your interviews. Six months ago, the General Manager hauled me into her office for failing to read verbatim. You must read the survey as it’s presented, she said. Failing to do so will render it invalid and is grounds for dismissal. I received a verbal warning. I’ve since learned how to tell when I’m being monitored. Your voice begins to echo in the phone receiver while you’re conducting a survey.
“Do you have some time tonight, ma’am, to answer a few questions?”
“Well... how many?”
“It’ll take ten minutes.”
“Sure,” says the woman.
“Great. In which of the following age groups do you fall? Eighteen to twenty-nine, 30-49, 50-75, 75 and over.”
“I’m definitely in the second category, Niko.”
I glance at Mike to see if I’m being monitored. There’s no echo in my phone. “You sound younger than that,” I say. “I was about to put you in the first category.”
“That’s sweet of you,” the woman says.
“Now, which of the following chartered banks have you banked with? Toronto Dominion, CIBC, Royal Bank of Canada, Scotia Bank, Bank of Montreal...”
“Well, Niko, I’ve used only TD and Scotia Bank. I haven’t really done any banking lately.”
“Which of the following banking products have you used at TD and Scotia Bank? Mutual funds, GICs, Tax-Free Savings Accounts...”
“I went out with a guy named Niko when I was in university.”
My eyes dart to the supervisor’s desk. Mike has his headphones on, but there’s no echo in my phone; he must be listening to someone else. “What university did you go to?” I ask, lowering my voice.
“York, from 1992 to 1996.”
“That’s when I was there. What did you study?”
“Me, too. I majored in Social Psychology.”
“I had Doctor Jeremy Silverman for Intro to Psych,” the woman says. “And Bill Jeffries for Abnormal Psychology in second year.”
“Tisa, is that you?”
“Yes, Niko, I thought I recognized your voice. You still sound the same, even after fifteen years.”
“I’ll call you back in a few minutes. I can’t talk right now.”
I copy Tisa’s number from my computer into my cell phone, turn off the survey and walk up to the supervisors’ desk. Mike watches me as I sign out to go to the washroom.
Once there, I step inside a booth, lock the door and sit down on a toilet. Mike will send someone to get me if I’m not back soon. I redial Tisa’s number. “Hi, it’s me again,” I whisper. “Wow, it’s been a long time. How are you?”
“Not too bad.”
“Did you graduate with your psychology degree?” I ask. “Are you working in the industry?”
“Yes and no.” There’s a brief pause. “Niko, I’m in a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. Where are you?”
“I’m in Yorkville, near Bay and Bloor.”
“I’m at the Tryst Cafe just west of Bloor and Yonge,” Tisa says.
“You’re only ten minutes from my work. Would you like to meet?”
“Are you sure it’s no trouble?”
“None at all. I’ve thought a lot about you all these years. I even looked for you on Facebook, but—”
“I’ve kept a pretty low profile lately,” Tisa says. “I can’t wait to see you, Niko.”
“Me, too. I’ll be there around ten-fifteen. Bye.”
I walk back to the phone bank with a spring in my step. What started out as a boring, unproductive night has suddenly morphed into something exciting. As I enter the office, I smile at Mike. He just sighs and shakes his head.
* * *
Tisa Morgan was a top student in our second-year Psychology class at York University. We met after I answered an ad offering tutoring at a reasonable price. As a writer, I struggled with the math courses but, with Tisa’s help, I managed to pass them all on the first try. Eventually she stopped charging me when I began teaching her basic self-defence techniques.
By third year university we’d become inseparable. During the fall of 1995, we held hands and laughed as we watched movies in the large Curtis Lecture Hall “L” theatre. One Friday evening, we attended a Star Wars movie marathon. Tisa dressed up as Princess Leia, complete with the hairdo, while I donned my C3PO outfit.
We went to the Royal Winter Fair, jogged together around the campus and ate at Blueberry Hill, the campus hangout. We sat for hours on her bed in Residence, talking about our future fears and dreams. Tisa ran her hands through my long hair as we kissed.
On New Year’s Eve, 1995, we went skating at Nathan Philips Square. Hand-in-hand, we ventured bravely out into the middle of the rink, the two of us ankle skating hopelessly around, immune to the stares we probably received. We held onto each other to keep from falling down, but ended up sprawled on the ice anyway, soaked and laughing. I was sure we’d be together forever.
One evening a week later, we were at our Navigators bible study group when I asked Tisa to come home and meet my parents. She burst into tears. Several of her friends rushed to her.
“What did you say to her, Niko?” Tisa’s best friend, Karen, asked. “You must have said something.”
I shrugged my shoulders. My heart plunged into my stomach.
After giving me dirty looks, Tisa’s friends hugged her in an attempt to comfort her, but she wouldn’t stop crying. Finally, they managed to quiet her down to a plaintive moan. The last time I saw her, she was in a catatonic state. Her eyes stared blankly ahead as her friends escorted her back to Residence.
Sitting on the bus back to my apartment, the horrible sound of Tisa’s sobs lingered in my mind. One minute, we’d been talking and joking. The next, she’d experienced a complete meltdown. After all the good times we’d shared, nothing made sense. I stopped attending bible study. Later I heard from a mutual friend that Tisa had left Residence and returned to live with her parents in Mississauga.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall