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For Whom The Bell Tolls

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, he probably didn't realize the magnitude of his creation and how it would shape the world. He also probably didn’t realize how much he was going to piss me off.

Shortly after completing his invention, Mr. Bell received the worlds first phone call. He didn't answer it, of course, because he knew it was a representative from the San Francisco Chronicle, asking if he'd like to subscribe (two weeks free for a limited time!).

You might say that since I am often employed for the sole purpose of answering his invention, I should feel somewhat indebted to Mr. Bell. Read on.

It's my first day temping at an engineering firm, and I arrive right on time. I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing here, all I know is that I have to ask for Connie, which I tell the elderly receptionist.

"Which Connie?" the woman asks.

"I wasn't given a last name," I tell her.

"Lemme try Connie Marshall," she says, and punches sharply at the phone with one finger.

Why are old women always thumping the shit out of buttons?  Keyboards, phones… they always use one finger and punch the buttons real hard. Slam-slam-slam. It's like they're mad or something. This receptionist is using enough force to poke a large cow into unconsciousness. Old men, on the other hand, are tentative with buttons, pressing carefully and softly, as if they might break something or sound an alarm. Am I right? And what is the deal with airline food??  Sorry.

"No, she's not there. Lemme try Connie Fortin." The desk shakes with the impact of each number.

I hate this, but I'm getting used to it. I don't want to point fingers or blame anyone, but I never get correct information and its entirely my agent's fault. Dozens of people always have to be called before my purpose at a new job can be established. Sometimes they stop people who are walking by the desk. "Is this your temp?" they say, like I'm an misplaced umbrella or something. Next time I'm just going to arrive with a note pinned to my sweater.

"She's not there. Lemme try Connie Waits." Slam-slam-slam. A rivet-gun might be described as "soothing."

One Connie or another eventually shows up, and I am taken upstairs to my post.

It'll be a short-term reception position, filling in for someone on vacation. It seems to me that the woman I am replacing is the only one who knows what really goes on around here. Luckily, my agency has gone to her house, removed her brain, and transplanted it into my own cranium, thereby giving me all of her valuable knowledge. At least, that's what everyone around here seems to assume, judging from the detailed questions about company policy, employees in different countries, and other intricate queries that only a seasoned employee, or someone with a seasoned employee's brain transplanted into their own cranium, would know.

I look over the list of employee names and phone numbers. I see one Smith, one Jones, and 23 Nguyen's. I'm not even kidding. 23 Nguyen's. I'm not even sure how to pronounce it, but so far I've heard Gwinn, Nuh-goo-en, Gween, Noo-an, and Nugwen. I do my best to decipher which of the twenty-three they are looking for before I politely put them on hold and disconnect the phone for a half-hour. And this is not a simple case of, "Which O'Grady are you looking for, ma'am? Sean or Mickey?" First names for the Nguyen's are along the lines of Minh, Ninh, Tho, Tro, Tri, Fong, Phuong, Gung, Hung, Dung (insert poop joke here), Kieuchau (insert sneeze joke here), and Jennifer (insert Jennifer joke here). Other names on my list include Joe Dung, Dung Troung, Lam Duc, Bich-Lein, and perhaps the most satisfying, Bich Thong. Now, I'm not trying to make fun of the Asian community or their names, really I'm not. But Bich Thong? Come on, its priceless. I guarantee Bich would agree with me.

Let me just break in here and say I hate working near people with headsets. They will suddenly ask you a strange question that you know nothing about, or ask you how your day is going, or ask where a certain person is, and when you reply, they look at you like you're crazy. This is because they are not speaking to you. They are speaking into their headsets to someone else. You just can't tell when they're on the phone or not. So how can you tell? One way is to determine if the question is relevant to you. If they ask you what you'd like for dinner, perhaps, and you don't know them nor plan to have dinner with them, they're probably on the phone. If they ask you if your stump is still itchy and you haven't had any limbs or extremities amputated recently, you can probably assume they're not talking to you. If they call you "Bich-Thong" and that’s not your name, well, you get it.

The engineering job is only a few days long, and soon after I am on the other side of town in the sales office of the Benson Hotel. The office is located on the mezzanine level and feels like it's probably directly above the furnace or the kitchen or Hell or something, because it is unbelievably hot in here. 

I am shown the phones by the human resources guy, meet the salespeople, and sit down to work. It soon becomes obvious that they truly need me there to answer the phones, because the office receives calls with alarming regularity. It also becomes apparent that they don't need me to answer phones because they all want to do it themselves. I quickly find that I have to piston my hand towards the receiver as hard and fast as I can, because if I hesitate in the slightest, someone else will pick up the line. Most of the time, I'll pick up the phone and the line will be dead because someone has beaten me to it. For the first two hours at work, I sound like this: Ring. "Good morning, Benson Ho- hello?"  Nothing.  Ring. "Good morni- Hello?" Nothing. Ring. "Goo- hello?"  

This gets on my nerves after a while, and I vow I will answer at least one phone call, whether they want me to or not. I begin to lie in wait for the phone, arm poised to answer at all times. I break the laws of nature, quickly evolving into a bat-like creature, with hearing sensitive enough to detect the electrical impulse traveling up the phone line to the receiver.

Ri- "Good-Morning-Benson-Hotel!" I scream. I've got one! I've actually got one! The person on the other end of the line, sounding a bit surprised, probably because they hadn't even finished dialing yet, begins to give me some information, but I can't hear it because the four people who are sitting behind me are all talking to me. "Is it for me? Who is it? What do they want? Etc." Well, no one actually says "Etc." But you get me.

What's the deal? Why am I here? All the salespeople have their own lines and aren't bashful about answering them, so why do I need to be here?

The phone rings.

All the sales people are already on other lines. Good, I can actually be useful. I pick up the line. The person wants to speak to Cathy, one of the salespeople. I put them on hold. Then Tod, with one "d", drops his line and picks up the line on hold. "That's for Cathy," I tell him. The phone rings. I pick it up. Tod puts Cathy's call back on hold. I put my line on hold, because it's for Tod. Cathy picks up the line I just put on hold, which is Tod's. "That's for Tod," I tell her. The phone rings. Tod picks up that line. I pick up Cathy's line to explain to the caller that Cathy is busy with Tod's line. Cathy picks up the phone, which is ringing again. Apparently, it's for Tod, because she puts it on hold. The phone rings. Cathy picks up the ringing line. I pick up Tod's line to say he's on another line. Tod picks up an as yet unidentified line. Cathy re-picks up Tod's line. I pick up Cathy's line to explain to the caller that Cathy is a moron. The phone rings. Tod has managed to pick up his line, but quickly realizes his mistake, puts it on hold, and picks up Cathy's line. I pick up the ringing line. Cathy picks up a line that isn't even ringing, and puts it on hold. I pick up a shotgun and discharge it into the ceiling to deal with my frustration. Tod picks up a second "d" so his name doesn't look like the name of a pretentious salesperson.

The phone rings.

I'm sure that people in the 1800's thought that the telephone was just a passing fad. Yet over a century down the line, the telephone is still bringing us all close together. Very close together. Way too damn close together.