Working Against Type
by Jeff Lewis

On Election Day, Lynn and I decided to help make the lines at the polls in Pennsylvania and Florida uncomfortably long.  Originally, we planned to go to Colorado, Nevada or Oregon to drive people to the polls, or maybe to sit and observe people wait in line, but our travel plans fell through.  Instead, we decided to try to persuade reluctant voters to spend a couple of hours in line.

A political action committee, which I’ll call BetterWorld, sponsored a gathering at a law office in downtown Oakland.  The aim was to call up reluctant voters in too-close-to-call land and remind them that voting is a good institution.  Neither of us enjoy speaking to strangers on the phone, but we don’t have jobs right now and guessed that we’d feel guilty if we just sat around all day, watching the dozen PBS shows stored on our Tivo, while waiting for the Daily Show Election Special at 7:00.

Cellphones in hand, we headed downtown to call the reluctants.  At the law office, a tall man with an earring and an easy manner met us at the receptionist's desk, pointed out the bagels, coffee and water and—after a friendly chat—gave us each a list of reluctant voters and a suggested script that we could use to build a friendly rapport with the swinging people of the battleground states.

I expected this to be a painful experience, but it turned out to be worse than I anticipated.  To start with, our host, Paul, offered us seats in the firm’s conference room with the other volunteers, rather than a cubicle, which I coveted.  I didn’t want the other volunteers to place my face with the appallingly bad calls that I was about to make.  We were there early, but already a woman was in the conference room, placing rapid-fire calls with a polished delivery.  More people of her caliber followed.  Making calls in front of these people was akin to prancing about front and center at a modern dance class.  Neither my phone skills nor my dance flourishes are ready for public viewing.

I told Lynn that I needed to go to the car for a while to compose myself.  Perhaps with a little practice in private, I could bear to face the conference room again.

In the car, I stared at my script for a while, took one shot at reading it to myself, but was unsatisfied with my wooden, Kerryesque delivery, which reminded me of a rookie quarterback recording his first radio spot for the local car dealership.  I don’t enjoy getting telemarketing calls, so I didn’t want to read from a script, anyway.  Well, actually, I do like telemarketing polls.  It brightens up my day when I can tell someone that, “I am ‘2-somewhat unlikely’ to buy the new Nelly album,” I couldn’t think of any way to turn these “urge to vote” calls into a poll, so I distilled the script into three bullet points:

1)  Volunteering with BetterWorld

2)  Urge to vote

3)  Kerry, preferably vote for

Bullet points ready, I needed to develop a speaking strategy.  What type of phone voice should I use?  I have several, although they are almost identically dull and monotone, so the nuances are usually lost on the person hearing them.  I do have one loud, forceful delivery that I call my “vice-president-just-passed-over-for-the-board-of-directors” voice.  When I rang Lynn prior to my first call, her first question was, “You’re not using your ‘loud’ voice, are you?”  That meant that I only had the different shades of monotone to choose from:  my meek palette.  This includes cheerfully subservient—“Hi!  I hope I’m not bothering you!?”—a factual, “I’m being told to say this” voice, and an angst-ridden, “the times are a-troubling” voice.

I’m prone to the long pause, which is disconcerting on the phone.  In conversation, it’s not unusual for my counterpart on the other end to use the phrase, “Are you still there?”  Even my parents—who know me well—still do this.  It’s especially disconcerting when the “Are you still there?”  comes during a long pause in the middle of a sentence.  Unfortunately, these long pauses become accentuated in answering machine messages.  Each time I leave a message, I hope for the best, but fear the worst.

I almost always begin badly:  “Hello, this is Jeff...uh, Lewis...”  Then, I briefly try to remember if I know the phone system code to start the message over again, which sets me back a few more seconds before I get to my message:  “Just calling to see if you received the,”  Because I feel a little bad about the quality of the message, I throw in an overly cheerful, “Hope you’re having a nice Tuesday,” and then pause for a couple of beats to considered if there’s anything else I can say to redeem the message.  I rack my brain one more time for the phone system code, and finally hang up.

On Election Day, I reached an answering machine about 75% of the time.  These didn’t go too well, as you can see from this representative sample (cheerful voice identified by bold, factual by underline and angst by italics):

Hello, I’m trying to reach Kitty and Manuel!  My name’s Jeff and I’m volunteering with the BetterWorld political action committee.  To urge you to vote!  Your vote means…  [Pause, to consider the disquieting path that this sentence is taking] much.  [I become very sad that I just said ‘Your vote means so much.’  If only I had mastery over the phone system, so that I could start over...]  I mean, my vote means a lot, too, but yours is more valuable because you live in Florida.  You are Floridians.  [Pause, to wonder why I just said that and to reflect on the fact that Floridians sounds like fluoride; also, to consider if people in Florida actually call themselves Floridians; is it like Trekkies and Trekkers?]  In particular, you should vote for John Kerry because... oh, there’s so many reasons.  I mean  [Pause; should I list them?  No, this is going on too long; must finish now.]  Well, have a nice day and thank you very much.

After each call, I spent several minutes thinking, “What are you doing?” before dusting myself off and trying again.

A couple of hours into the calls, we learned that the BetterWorld PAC had accidentally sent the same list of numbers to multiple calling groups so that some callers were being bombarded with one “urge to vote” after another.  When I heard this, I recalled a couple of particularly long answering machine message beeps that suggested a long string of calls from BetterWorld volunteers.  I wondered if my hand-crafted, salt-of-the-earth messages would stand out as a refreshing, heartfelt call in a sea of scripted statements, or as the final straw that would turn Boca Raton into a pinkie-hating stronghold.

After about three hours, I reached a woman with 3rd degree burns on her legs, who was waiting for a ride to the polls.  Cheryl was in a lot of pain and needed to know the arrival time of the van twenty minutes ahead of time, because that’s how long it would take her to get down the stairs.  It hadn’t arrived yet, so I offered to find out who was supposed to pick her up.  Actually, I offered to have her call me back in about an hour if nobody picked her up, but she understandably assumed that I knew something about the ride-sharing program and asked me to check on her ride.  I assured her that I would.  After I hung up, though, I reevaluated this offer.  I knew she lived in Pennsylvania.  That’s not a lot of information to go on, particularly since I didn’t have any contact numbers for the ride service and I was sitting in my car, computer-less.  I once was stranded in the Pittsburgh airport; it’s a large airport with a reasonably priced mall, right in the main terminal.  Like I said, I didn’t have a lot to go on.

I considered calling her back to let her know that I couldn’t find the number, but something that she said partway through the conversation made me really want to help her:  “Aaaghaaaah.  Aaaaaaaaaa!”  She was okay, she said, at least as okay as you can be with 3rd degree burns and the specter of a Bush White House.  I decided that if nothing else, I’d do my part by helping this woman vote.  Maybe, for her, I was an Angel of Hope, although that might be pushing it a little too far.  I have to admit that I was bolstered by the thought that I wouldn’t be able to make calls while I hunted down her ride.

I headed back to the law offices to borrow Paul’s computer.  Somewhere between the car and the computer, I got it into my head that the woman lived in Reading, PA, so I did a number of Yahoo! searches on political action committees in the greater Reading area.  I found a likely number and checked in with Lynn—she tried to persuade me to return to the conference room, but there were even more slick-talking phone volunteers, so I high-tailed it back to the car.

The Reading number was busy, so it was about an hour before I finally got through to a perky woman, who was about to help me when I noticed that I’d neglected to note that Cheryl lived in Pittsburgh.  Luckily, though, the Reading branch had the number of the ride-sharing group in Pittsburgh.  After a number of busy signals, I checked back in with Cheryl to let her know that I hadn’t forgotten her.  A man answered and told me that she’d already left; I neglected to urge him to vote.

My conversation with Cheryl was an anomaly, because usually when I got a live person, I went to a minimalist approach, so that I never had to stray far from the cheerful voice.  Near the end, my delivery got so spare that one of my final calls was, “Hi, Barbara!  My name’s Jeff.  I was just calling to urge you to vote!  You did?  Great!  Well, have a great day!  Thanks again!”  Afterwards, I wondered what she thought about this non-partisan stranger—drifting perilously close to his loud voice—who just called up to wish her a fine day at the polls.  My hidden message, I guess, was that America is a great, strange country.

At 1:00 am on November 3rd, we got a call from Florida.  A woman was so touched by one of Lynn’s messages that she got Lynn’s number off caller ID and called us at 4:00 am, her time, to taunt us.  She was using what her ex-husband probably called her “sarcastic” voice:  “Hello.  You called me today to ask me to vote.  I just wanted to call you this morning to find out where you were to see the returns.  HAVE A NICE DAY!”  These might not look like hateful words, but in her hands—in the middle of the night—they packed venom.  Next time, I think our country will be better served if I just sit around and watch her stand in line.


Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004