June 17, 2002
What Goes Around

miles to go: 1,285.39

"Thank you for calling The Dirt Company," she says. "Can you hold?" And before I have a chance to get so much as a word in edgewise, she slams me into phone system limbo.

All of a sudden I'm sitting here listening to the twinkly opening strains of "The Blue Danube."

But that's OK. I understand how it is. I have days like that myself, including the one currently in progress. Besides: I figure that a few seconds on hold won't kill me. I can sit here and enjoy another bite of my delicious nutritious Slim-Fast Meal-On-The-Go Bar while I wait. I can finish writing up these last couple of phone messages. I can polish the pencil sharpener, maybe, or alphabetize my paper clips. 

Except as it turns out I'm not on hold for "a few seconds": I'm on hold for three and a half minutes, according to the read-out on my console. By the time she finally comes back to check on me, I've eaten my entire delicious nutritious Slim-Fast Meal-On-The-Go Bar. (This, of course, is in direct violation of The Receptionists' Code of Standards and Practices, Regulation 675, Section F8, which clearly states Never leave a caller on hold long enough for them to finish an entire delicious nutritious Slim-Fast Meal-On-The-Go Bar.)

"Thank you for holding," she says. "How may I direct your call?" She has the tremulous, slightly-befuddled voice of the elderly temp. I can practically smell the Gold Bond Powder from 331 miles away.

"This is Secra in the Oakland office," I say, attempting to sound kind yet authoritative. "I need to speak to someone in the IT Department as soon as possible." 

I'm determined not to be one of those callers who treats the receptionist -- even a temporary receptionist who sounds like my great-grandmother -- like an imbecile. Still, it's important that I convey the extreme urgency of the situation. I explain to her that our network connection is down, here in the Oakland office, and that unless we get it up and running again in the next forty minutes we won't be able to get our timesheets into the system. All I need to know is ...

"I'm sorry," she interrupts. "My board is lit up. Please hold." And I am unceremoniously dumped, once again, into the no-woman's-land of system hold ... and the twinkly opening strains of "The Blue Danube."


I feel the first vague tickle of irritation. I've already left urgent voicemail messages for everybody in the computer department this morning, but so far I haven't gotten a call back. All I need to know is whether the IT guys are in the L.A. office today, or whether I should be looking for them elsewhere. (Like the golf course, maybe.) Just as I am about to hang up and take a more creative approach to the problem -- whacking our server box a few times with a hammer, for instance -- she suddenly pops back on the line.

"Thank you for calling The Dirt Company," she says pleasantly. "Can you hold please?"

"NO!" I shout. "Please don't put me on hold again!" 

But it's too late: the trapdoor has already sprung open beneath me. Once again I'm plummeting down into the dark cold nothingness of involuntary hold ... and once again the twinkly opening strains of "The Blue Danube" are there to greet me. (Apparently this is one of those music-on-hold systems that starts the musical selection at the beginning, every time you land on hold. It's like déjà vu all over again ... and again ... and again.) This time I'm on hold for two minutes and fifty-seven seconds: long enough to pull the brown leaves off my kalanchoe ... long enough to change my desktop wallpaper ... long enough to start building up a really good head of steam. When she comes back on the line finally, I've gone from mildy irritated to ever-so-slightly-more-than-ever-so-slightly annoyed.

"Hello, IV Department?" she says hopefully. "I've got Sacra in Oakdale on the line for you."


"Nope, it's still me," I reply slowly, with painful restraint. Temp or no temp -- Receptionists Code of Standards and Practices or no Receptionists Code of Standards and Practices (Regulation 427-B, Section A: Never become rude or impatient or snooty with a fellow Receptionist, no matter HOW stoopid she is), I'm beginning to feel decidedly less charitable towards this woman than I did five minutes ago. If we don't finish timesheets today, it will be *my* ass on the line. I've pretty much managed to screw up everything ELSE while JoAnne has been on vacation these past few days: it would be nice if I could at least resolve the timesheet crisis without further meltdown. I decide it's time to take a firmer stance here. 

"Put me through to Mike in the IT Department right away," I say to her. 

Something in my voice apparently convinces her that I mean business, because this time she doesn't put me on hold: she immediately transfers me to Mike's extension. I hear the familiar beep and buzz of the in-house transfer.

Except that it's the wrong Mike.

"Geology Department," growls a deep -- and unfamiliar -- male voice. (Is that a trace of an Eastern European accent I hear? If so, then I've definitely got the wrong extension: the Mike I'm looking for sounds more like Arnold Horschack than Arnold Schwarzenegger.) 

"I'm sorry," I stammer. "I'm trying to reach Mike in the IT Department, but I think your receptionist gave me the wrong extension. Can you please send me back to her?"

He emits a low noise in his throat -- it's clear that this has become a recurring problem in that office, just lately -- and he transfers me without further comment. I hear the main line ringing ... once, twice, three times ... before she finally picks up.

"Thank you for calling The Dirt Company," she says. "Can you hold please?"

This is followed by a single earsplitting beep, an abrupt *click* in my ear ...

... and a dial tone.

I've been cut off.

For a long moment all I can do is sit and glare at the phone in disbelief. This is the most dazzling display of switchboard ineptitude I've seen since ... well ... since *I* was first learning how to run a switchboard, twentysome years ago. If I were feeling a skosh less hormonal this morning -- or a skosh less under the gun, or a skosh less sorry for myself, or a skosh less like crawling into the supply closet and curling up behind the generator and weeping for a couple of hours -- I might be laughing it off. Who hasn't been accidentally hung up on, once in a while? As it is, I have absolutely no *Humor Molecules* left in reserve. As a matter of fact, I'm seriously considering calling the corporate office and complaining to one of the administrative managers. If this woman can't even connect me to the computer department in an emergency, how the hell is she handling her other calls? And what kind of image is that projecting to our clients? I know that my sense of outrage is out of proportion to the situation -- that I'm projecting my own premenstrual misery and frustration on this hapless nitwit -- but I don't care. I want action! I want fur to fly! I want heads to roll!

I just want to make sure that it's not MY head.

Just as I'm about to dial the corporate office to tattle on her, my second line lights up. I answer it in my usual prompt, faux-I-give-a-shidt! fashion.  "This is Diana in Los Angeles," announces the voice on the other end of the line.

Thank god!  Finally ... a peer! A comrade! A fellow sojourner on the road of Executive Assitude! I've never actually met Diana -- she works in the corporate office in Los Angeles: I've only spoken to her on the phone a couple of times -- but I feel an unspoken kinship with her anyway. I've been in her shoes, after all. I've done her job. I understand what it's like, being responsible for the care and feeding of a mercurial CEO. In fact, I'm convinced that someday Diana and I will be Dirt Company phone pals ... sharing tricks of the trade, comparing notes, swapping horror stories. (I see your cancelled company picnic and I raise you four cancelled colonoscopy appointments and a dying dwarf schleffera.)

"Hi, Diana!" I chirp. "How are you?"

She brushes my friendly overture aside, like a Guernsey flicking at a mudfly with her tail. "Who is in charge of approving invoices while JoAnne is gone?" she asks in a frosty voice, without preamble or pleasantries. No 'I'm fine, thanks, and you?' No 'Did you have a nice weekend?' No 'How's the weather?' or 'Did you see the big game?' or 'Have you heard the one about the priest, the rabbi and The Main Nerdy Geoscientist Guy?' If her voice were any chilIier, I would need earmuffs just to listen to her.

I explain to her -- carefully, courteously, using my very best *I May Answer The Phones (But I DO Have A Clue) tone of voice -- that approving invoices is one of the tasks JoAnne felt could wait until she came back from vacation.

This answer clearly does not sit well with Diana. There is a pause -- a deliberate pause, I'm sure, designed to convey Extreme Frowny-Facedness -- plus a calculatedly irritated sniff. "Is there some kind of ... administrative assistant or office helper there that I can speak to?" she asks finally. It is obvious from the way she says "administrative assistant" and "office helper" that she considers these positions only a rung or two above primordial goo -- or receptionists -- on the corporate evolutionary ladder.

"That would be me," I reply.

Another pause -- this one as dark and ominous as a thundercloud on Graduation Day -- and then she sniffs again. "Put me through to Scott then," she snaps. The tone in her voice is unmistakeable. I don't care if you're the Administrative Assistant of Diddly-Poop. 

Hands shaking, I transfer the call to the General Manager. For the fourth goddamn time in less than a week, I'm fighting back tears at the office. "I've got Diana in L.A. on the line for you," I tell him ... praying that he doesn't hear my voice wobble. God knows he heard enough of that last week. "She's upset about invoices, and I don't think I'm going to be able to help her." 

After I've transferred the call to him, I flee across the hall to the sanctity of the lunchroom to try and compose myself. Someone has thoughtfully left an open package of Oreo Chocolate Chip Mint Cookies on the lunchroom table, and as I help myself to four or five or thirty-two of them, I cycle through an amazing gear-range of emotions. I'm embarrassed. JoAnne left me in charge when she went on vacation, and I've managed to completely fudk things up. Everyone in this office must think I'm a big weepy incompetent idiot.  I'm hurt -- So much for becoming "Dirt Company phone pals" with Diana!  --  and I'm nervous. What if Diana decides to complain about me to a higher-up ... just for kicks?

But most of all: I'm pissed. Who the fudk does she think she is, talking to me like that?!? She doesn't know a thing about me, or about my background, or about my abilities. She doesn't know the hormonal nightmare I'm going through. She doesn't know how hard I'm trying to keep things together. How dare she treat me like a ... like a ...

Like a hapless nitwit?

Well. Yeah. Something like that.

It takes me about ten minutes -- and a couple more handfuls of those Oreo Chocolate Chip Mint cookies -- to pull myself together. (At least I'm making progress. Last week it took me an entire lunch hour -- and most of a leftover birthday cake -- to recover from Friday's big Boo-Hoo Moment, after The Main Nerdy Geoscientist Guy complained about a report I typed.) The smart part of me knows there really isn't much I can do about Diana's snotty attitude. If I've learned anything at all, over the years, it's that the only attitude you can change is your own. And obviously there isn't anything I can do about The Seventy-Two Hours From Hell -- which, as of this writing, have now stretched into The Two-Hundred-Eighty-Eight Hours From Hell -- except to wait for the dam to burst ... wait for my overdue period to start so I can start taking the cycle-regulators ... wait for the storm to pass and for the shrieking noises in my head to die down ... wait for things to go back to normal.

Which they will. Soon.

In the meantime, the timesheet problem isn't going to fix itself. I brush the cookie crumbs from my sweater, dry my eyes, blow my nose and return to the front desk. There, I resolutely dial the corporate office, one more time.

"Thank you for calling The Dirt Company," she says. "Can you hold please?"

"No problem," I tell her, in the friendliest voice I can muster. And I settle in for the wait.

It's a good thing I actually LIKE "The Blue Danube."

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hi! i was in new jersey today! sorry i didn't call!