Phone company, power company, credit union -- heck, even the neighborhood dope dealer's got a pager with a phone queue: "For marijuana, press one and the pound sign. For meth, hit ALL THE FREAKING BUTTONS AT ONCE, OVER AND OVER ..."
These messages give me time to reflect: My call is important to whom, exactly? There is no "us," unless it's Mr. and Mrs. PhoneCo.com, and if there is an "us" and they're honest, they'll admit that my call is a pain in the patootie to them, and they'll do everything in their power to put me off until I've waited long enough that I get disgusted and hang up and the invisible "us" can breathe a collective sigh of relief as one more of "them" -- that's me -- bites the dust.
I thought I finally had "us" figured out -- or one of "us," anyway: my student loan "servicer," with the euphonious moniker of MHESAC. Mr. and Mrs. MHESAC live in Helena, Mont. I send them my monthly stay-out-of-jail money ($198.33 for the rest of my wretched life, thank you very little). They send me nice letters that start out, "Dear Dennis, the following legal actions have been commenced against you for recovery of" and so forth. It's a relationship, of sorts.
When I call my loan buddies at MHESAC, to inquire about the status of my account, say, or to request an extension on the delayed deferment I've already stretched into twice the usual forbearance period, I get one of those voices: never is, never was human, and how they get a machine to say all of those mean things I'll never know, but they do. I used to make the mistake of pressing one for more information now, or to hear a more complete listing press star pound pound 666, and I'd get sucked into some labyrinthine telephonic Hell, never to return.
To cope, I'd cheerfully begin crocheting a set of booties. I've taken up needlework to deal with these outfits.
I know what the humans at MHESAC are doing, if there are any humans: they sit around with those cute little no-hands headsets on and laugh and laugh and laugh. "Hey Lorraine, check out the idiot from Spo-kain on line seven. He's going for the 'speak with a Customer Service Representative' button for the eighth time! No lie!"
That's me, old number seven. I thought I had them buffaloed. I'd pretend I didn't have a touch-tone phone, and not press anything, and pretty soon -- within an hour, anyway -- I'd usually get a real person on the line. Not that she could actually do anything but send me a deferment form that grumpy old Mr. MHESAC would later deny, but I felt like I was making progress, and that was important, my therapist said.
Of course, it had to end.
The last time I called, the MHESACs were all over that ruse. First came the usual litany of a dozen confounding instructions: "If you'd like to request a forbearance form, or to switch your long-distance carrier, press FU star star backslash pound pound now."
The student loan folks had sent another letter that started out, "By now you are aware of the seriousness of your delinquency." My plan was to hook up with an operator, prevaricate a bit about the status of an alleged check that may or may not be in the mail, and -- if everything went well -- I'd be good for two weeks without another dunning letter. Or so I hoped.
All hope is precisely what must be abandoned before entering Telephone Hell. The MHESACs have a new greeting: It trips through the regular playlist of one-way rat-holes into which I can pour my precious time, then finally gets to the goods: "If you are not calling from a touch-tone phone, please stay on the line and a Customer Service Representative will be with you shortly," then an ominous click, then the Muzak version of Lou Reed's "Heroin," all violins.
At the mere mention of a real live CSR, my palms grow sweaty and my back arches. But deep inside I know this is a tease, so I start on the second bootie, and am halfway up the calf when I hear another click, and what sounds like a call -- my call! -- being answered, so I immediately begin gibbering away about my Special Circumstances and simultaneously rattling off my Social Security Number when another voice cuts in, ethereal yet commanding and clearly prerecorded: "All of our customer service representatives are busy at the moment. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received" -- then nothing, not even Muzak.
Now, I take a size 12 shoe, sometimes a 13 in the bootie. I've gotten two pairs done before I hear another click, and this time, it's a man's voice that comes on and says, "Your call has reached us after our regular business hours. Please ..." Yeah, yeah, I know -- I should visit the Web site at payupnowslacker.com for up-to-date account blabbety woof. They may have won the battle, but the war's not over. And thanks to these booties, my feet will be toasty warm in the trenches.