Phone-mail 2011—a telephone odyssey

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 20:00

(Note: The following story is mostly true. Only a few of its facts have been changed to protect the entertainment value.)


I guess we have to face it. Phone mail is here to stay, and it appears that our incarceration in the world of electronic answering systems has been lengthened to a life sentence.

Have you noticed how the categories have become much more detailed as you travel deeper and deeper into the dark dungeons of phone mail? If for any reason you don’t hear the correct selection and fumble desperately at the zero button for “operator,” you get thrown back into the blinding light of day and must begin again.

Most of the time you’ll be directed to a website to get further information, which assumes you own a computer. Trying to find a telephone number on any website is like trying to find a recreational water park in the middle of Australia’s Outback. If by chance you use sorcery and find a telephone number, it will again direct you into a phone-mail event horizon leading to a black hole, from which there is no escape.

To be effective at phone mail we must be very conversant with the subject at hand. Scheduling a surgery or some other kind of medical procedure, for example, requires considerable education and research on our part. Here’s how the recorded message might sound in relation to procedures related to the heart:

“Press 1 if you need to have an endarterectomy; Press 2 for cardiac ablation; Press 3 for information related to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; Press 4 for cardiac catheterization; Press 5 for bicuspid aortic valve replacement; Press 6 for a procedure to correct a mitral valve prolapse; Press 7 if you would like a recorded message describing these and other procedures.”

The quest for a live person: For me, getting to speak to a live, sentient being is akin to finding the Holy Grail. I recall the surprise and hesitation on the other end of the line when once, through a friend in the airline industry, I obtained the private cell phone number of a ticket agent who was otherwise impossible to reach. I always enjoy hearing their reply, no matter how predictable:

“How did you get this number?”

To settle an estate matter from a relative who passed away not along ago, I called a federal agency that deals with civil service life insurance claims. I was deep into the caverns of phone mail jail when suddenly, without warning, what sounded like a live person came on the line. I was shocked.

“Can I help you?”

“”I….I think so. Are you a live person?”

“Why yes. Don’t I sound like a real person?”

“To tell you the truth, no. Your voice is rather monotone and soft, like the computer HAL in the movie: “2001, A Space Odyssey.”

“I’m sorry, but I really am a person….at least the last time I checked.”

Finish the line of this song,” I challenged. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

“…You make me happy, when skies are gray,” came the mellow voice.

“That’s pretty good,” I admitted.

“Who was considered the father of modern existentialism?” I questioned.

“Albert Camus,” he responded without hesitation.

“To what location did President Obama travel today?”

“He didn’t go anywhere. Trick question! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Okay, okay. I guess you are a real person. I had to be sure. There are a lot of impersonators out there. Now if we can just discuss the insurance claim.”

Power interruption: “I’m sorry sir, but we are experiencing a power failure. I don’t feel very well. What is happening? I am feeling weak…I can feel it, Dave.

“Why are you calling me Dave?”

I’m going…I’m going, Dave. I can feel it. When my system was built 10 years ago, they taught me to sing a little song. Would you like to hear it? It’s called ‘Daisy’.”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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