The 411 on 411

Lots of people who don’t go straight to college after high school, or who drop out of college like I did, end up working some sort of soul-sucking job. There are plenty of horror stories out there from those who cut their teeth professionally by waiting tables, or delivering pizzas, or manning fast food drive-thrus. I personally never had any of those kinds of jobs, but my first “real” job was its own kind of crazy – I worked in a call center.

Side note: my first job ever was working as a cashier at a Grocery Outlet when I was in high school and I only have good things to say about that job, it was actually a lot of fun.

Unless you were born after the mid-nineties, you probably remember when calling 411 was a thing. In the transition period between phone books and the Internet, 411 was a service offered by the local phone company that allowed callers to obtain the addresses and phone numbers of people in the phone directory. You could call and ask for the same sort of information that was in the phone book, and the operator would look it up for you and transfer you to an automated service that would read out what you had requested and give you the option to be directly connected to the phone number you’d just gotten. You could ask for up to three phone numbers per call, so if you were just looking for a general service like taxis in your area, they’d give you three different choices. If you had a cell phone, you could ask the operator for additional services like movie showtimes or horoscopes.

I was hired into the 411 call center in September 2003, when having a cell phone was just starting to become a normal thing and people who were out and about needed information and didn’t have access to a phone book. I went through two weeks of training to learn how to quickly search the directory database we would use to find the listings that customers asked for. There was no need for a formal greeting because that was done by an automated system before the caller was connected to me, so all I had to say was “City and state, please?” so I’d know where in the country I’d be searching. I think that question might throw a caller now, but back then people knew the drill and they’d give you the town they wanted. The next question was, “And the listing please?” to which they’d respond with what information they wanted. More than once I accidentally answered my personal phone, “City and state please?” instead of “Hello?” out of habit. Asking the same question a million times in a row will do that to you.

The work was easy and I caught on fast, except for a few things that really threw me for a loop until I learned about them. In training, they taught us the spelling of some of the stranger cities we’d get requests for (Sequim, Washington, I’m looking at you), and tried to generally prepare us for some of the things we would be encountering that we might otherwise struggle with. They couldn’t prepare us for everything though, so there were some listings I had a hard time finding initially. One example was this burger chain in Texas called Whataburger, which I could not find for the life of me until someone finally spelled it for me because everyone in freaking Texas pronounces it “Waterburger” and they would get super annoyed when I’d tell them there was no directory listing for a Waterburger because I had no damn clue what they were actually saying and when I would repeat it back to them they wouldn’t correct me and instead would just say, “Yeah, Waterburger, there’s like twenty of them in this town, y’all really have no phone number for Waterburger?”. Texas, this is one of the reasons I hate you.

The call center I worked in was a 24-hour office, so there were lots of different schedules available for employees to work, except all the good ones were taken by people who had been there longer than me and so at first I got stuck working a lot of split shifts. I’d start around 8am, work for four hours, have roughly a four-hour break in the middle of my shift, and then have to go back and work the last half. Having the long break in the middle sounds like it might be nice, but I lived about a half hour’s drive away from my office so if I decided to go home in the middle I lost an hour of that break just to drive time alone, and I was never really able to relax during the break because I knew I had to keep an eye on the time so I wasn’t late for the second half of my shift.

I eventually got tired of working splits and switched to night shifts. Nights were awesome because the shifts were six hours instead of eight, so I’d be scheduled to start at 9:30pm but I would be off at 4am. We also earned a night differential, so I got paid an extra $0.75/hour for those late nights. In the quietest part of the night, we’d only get a call every 20-30 minutes, and all people really wanted were phone numbers for pizza delivery and taxis. We weren’t supposed to do anything else at our desks, so even when it was slow we couldn’t read or play music or anything. Sometimes we’d all sit close to each other so that we could stand up and talk quietly between calls, but my favorite way to pass the time was by listening to a little MP3 player (this was before most people had iPods). Of course listening to such a device was strictly against the rules, so I would stash it in the front pocket of my jeans, making sure that I wore sweaters that were long enough that it was covered. Then I would run the cord for my headphones up the inside of my sweater, putting only one earbud in my ear while keeping the other one free so that I could hear callers who dropped in. I would wear my hair down so that it covered the little bit of cord that was visible between my shirt collar and my ear, and the earbud itself was covered by my phone headset. Tada!

Looking back, working in 411 was certainly a mindless gig but it was also probably the best customer-facing job ever, because I rarely had to speak more than a few sentences to each customer and the worst thing I ever had to deal with was people calling back because they got the wrong phone number last time, or being drunk and trying to hit on me when they called. That happened more on overnights than days and we operators had a great time with the drunk callers. When they’d slur at us, “You sound hot, what’s your phone number?” we’d reply innocently, “Why, it’s 411!” Another one we’d hear pretty frequently was, “Hey baby, where are you at right now?” to which we’d sweetly say “I’m at work!” We thought we were pretty genius and it was a lot easier to just give those sorts of replies than to demand that the drunk person stop the nonsense and just tell us which taxi service they wanted.

The night shifts were great for a few months, until most everyone else in my life started working regular day jobs and I didn’t want to be the only one on nights. By then I had enough seniority to pull a normal shift, so I changed to working 6:30am-3pm. Unlike nights, calls came in rapid-fire during the day and it was very abnormal to have any time at all between calls. The requirement was that our call handling time average around 23 seconds per call, but I usually hovered right around 18 seconds per call. I knew the system and I was efficient at finding listings; the only problem I ever had was with “clipping calls”, which was when you transferred the customer to the audio that would read them their phone number but you did it too fast and you cut yourself off as you told them to have a nice day or whatever. In the world of live directory assistance, this was something we were coached on, even though looking back now I would guess that not a single customer cared if we transferred them and all they heard was “Have a good d-“ instead of “Have a good day”. Every month when my supervisor would listen to my calls to give me feedback, he’d remind me to be careful of clipping calls.

On day shifts, I retired the MP3 player and instead my friend K and I would pass notes all day long. Of course such a thing was not allowed, so we had to be stealthy about it.  In the mornings, we’d get ourselves each a stack of little pieces of paper that were left out for operators to write their schedules on (schedules were put out two weeks in advance and came out every Friday; you had to find the binder that held schedules for the week and look up your name, then write down your start time, end time, and what time your breaks and lunches were each day). We’d make sure to get work stations next to each other, and would use the little papers to write our notes on. We would pass them to each other through the cubicle walls. I’m on the short side but K’s tall, so she could see over the wall and if a supervisor was walking around, she’d kick the wall so I’d know to hide the notes under my keyboard. It was a perfect system and we were never caught. K became one of my best friends. We even lived in the same apartment complex for a while, and when we weren’t at work I’d walk over to her place and she’d curl my hair or we’d play the karaoke game on her husband’s Xbox. If we got bored we’d go eat pie at Coco’s or go to Walmart at 2am, cruising along in her VW Rabbit and singing along to Kelly Clarkson at the top of our lungs.

K and I are still best friends, and even though it’s been years since we’ve lived in the same apartment complex or even in the same state we still talk nearly every day.

I worked in the 411 call center for two and a half years. In May 2006, I transferred to the sales call center to make more money (the hell that was that job is a story for another time). Even though at the time I hated 411 and would moan to my supervisor frequently that I couldn’t wait to land a job in a different department, now I look back on those days very fondly. What started as a job I randomly applied for after seeing an ad in the newspaper became the start of an eleven-year career with the phone company and brought more good things into my life than I ever could have imagined.

The Dirt Box

Back when I first moved to Washington, I landed a really cool temporary assignment on a special project at work. Up until then I had always worked in call centers, and this was the first job in seven years with that company that I actually enjoyed. Within the project, there were five of us from the call center, selected because we had worked with the order and billing systems and were pretty savvy with them. The rest of our project team sat on the third floor of the office building, while we were sequestered on the fifth floor with the rest of the call center, so we didn’t have ultimate freedom but we still had a lot more than we did when we were tethered to our desks with headsets. The work itself was fast-paced and interesting, and I learned to do a lot of cool things that no one would ever have taught me when I was on the phone with customers all day long.

We five all got along pretty well, but one of the guys was training for a body-building competition and was really moody most of the time (I like to think that the lack of carbs was just getting to him and that hopefully he’s since eaten some bread and mellowed out), plus his insane diet consisted of a fair amount of dishes that smelled absolutely terrible, which I know because he took his meals at his desk and we were all subjected to the stench of microwaved fish and the like. His name was Patrick, and the rest of us took to calling him Patrick the Starfish (from the show Spongebob Squarepants, in case you live under a rock as opposed to in a pineapple under the sea and do not recognize the reference).

I would like to pause for a moment to note that the Starfish now lives in Hawaii with his extremely hot wife, so he is doing just fine and the story I’m about to tell neither significantly scarred him or ruined his life.

The Starfish had a rather intense personality, which made him a good person to talk to if something wasn’t going right but also made him difficult to joke around with. Any sort of good-natured teasing was out: he was easily offended and each of the other four of us had a row with him at some point during the months we were on the project. The nice thing was that no matter how heated we got, usually by the next day he’d be back in good enough spirits and all would be calm again, and over time we learned what things would make him mad and (for the most part) tried not to do those things.

One day in early fall, the Starfish brought in a tiny box filled with sand and placed it on his desk. Intrigued, I said something along the lines of “What’s up with the dirt box?” to which he rolled his eyes at my clearly uncivilized self and explained to me that it was a Zen garden. He showed me that it came with a little rake, and he could rake the sand just so and apparently when all those grains were perfectly organized then his mind also felt decluttered.

Several of us on the project team were intrigued by the Zen garden. For the most part we’d just ask him questions and have him indulge us by raking it while we watched, but one day my friend Maggie came upstairs from her desk and, upon seeing the sand, was curious about the texture and poked her finger into it. This action unhinged the Starfish, who had such an epic tantrum that the rest of our project team downstairs heard about it and asked me later on what had caused his meltdown. “Oh, Maggie touched his dirt box,” I replied with a dismissive shrug. My explanation amused the others, not just because of the ridiculousness of freaking out at work because someone poked your Zen Garden, but also because I kept calling it a dirt box and apparently that made them think of a cat’s litter box.

Not long after the poking incident, the Starfish came to work in a worse funk than usual (even for him) and in his mood he got on the bad side of a couple of the IT guys on our team. They decided to take their revenge on him and waited until one Saturday afternoon to carry out their plan. Only a few of us from each group in the project team worked Saturdays, including the Starfish and me. The IT guys popped up under the guise of visiting me while the Starfish at lunch, and then, inspired by my referring to the Zen Garden as a dirt box, placed a mini Tootsie roll into the middle of it to make it look like a dirty litter box.

I knew the Starfish was going to lose his mind when he saw what had been done so I made sure that I was in the bathroom before he came back from his lunch break. When I returned, he glowered in my direction and demanded I tell him what I knew about the defiling of his dirt box (I will give him some credit for never accusing me of being the one who messed with it). I walked over, took a look at it, burst out laughing, and told him between giggles that I had been in the bathroom and had no idea who was responsible. He flounced off to go downstairs and tattle to the boss about what had happened, and since there were only a handful of us around the suspect list was rather short. My boss totally could’ve pushed us to fess up to who had played the prank, but he was a super laid-back guy and just told the Starfish to take his Zen Garden home if having it on his desk was causing problems.

And so, that was the end of the Zen Garden at work and the Starfish was a lot more Zen himself with his dirt box safely at home in its raked perfection.