Essential Services

The relay center for the deaf was considered an essential public service since TTY users needed it to call 911, and so the operators were all given photo IDs to show the police if we got pulled over in a level-three snow emergency. This was one of many things they told us on day one of the three-week training session. It was December of 1999 and the air was more wired than usual between the holidays and the Y2k rumors. The Christmas treats and hot beverages being served everywhere only added to the collective social buzz.

During the day, I was working as a records clerk for a credit bureau from eight in the morning until five, then reporting to the call center by six PM for training until 11:30. I was too tired to enjoy the office Christmas party at the Racquet Club that the bureau manager hosted to celebrate an exceptionally productive year for mortgage processing—my first filet mignon and I could barely keep my eyes open to cut it. The training class at the call center started out with twenty women—they outnumbered the male applicants at least ten to one—but almost half of us would be gone before the end of the three weeks. There were strict rules about arriving on time and making it to each class; this alone weeded out a few people, and our trainer Marlene’s personality was good for one or two more.

On the third night of week one, Marline asked us “do you see this?” as she drew a circle on the training room’s dry-erase board. “In the first grade, the teacher might’ve made you stand there with your nose in that circle when you acted up. Stay on track in here or you might be doing it again.”

“Damn, who does she think she is, talking to us like that?” a woman named Clovia said as we sipped coffee during the break. Everyone else was outside smoking. “And yesterday that little gal with the cornrows asked her in a perfectly nice way when they were going to give out our first paychecks and she about snapped her face off.”

“I saw that,” I said.

The little gal with the cornrows dropped out and Marlene was replaced with Mickey, a UD student who was exactly what we all needed to stay awake. Mickey was his real name, birth certificate and all. It suited him.

“Stretch, ladies,” Mickey urged like a young Richard Simmons, knowing how exhausted most of us were. “Stretch, belly-dance, whatever gets you there. The training period and the first couple of days on the floor are the hard part. After that it’s cruise control, I swear on my dear mother’s life.”

There was a lot to learn. Buttons to push when a TTY caller came on the line, and different buttons for a hearing person. Other buttons created toggles for different functions, like sending automated messages to the TTY user or placing 911 calls. Shortcuts for typing common words and phrases. The calls themselves could be about anything from an audiology appointment to a trip to the zoo. Mickey passed out sample scripts for us to practice with for difficult calls that might have to be handled sometimes, and one more woman dropped out after learning that phone sex wasn’t outside the perimeters of the job.

By the end of the three weeks, our class was down to twelve. On our first day on the floor, I couldn’t remember how to raise the volume on my computer’s microphone and had to shout on a call, which meant everyone on the floor could hear me even if the caller couldn’t. At least half the people being called hung up on me as soon I announced the relay service. My fingers turned to sausages when I typed and I saw that Mickey wasn’t kidding when he told us that the average human spoke 120 words a minute. After two hours I was ready to curl up in a ball and curse all humanity, hearing or deaf as the case may be.

“People are assholes,” I said to Clovia on our break.

“You’re just now finding that out?”

“No, I just felt compelled to overstate the obvious.”

“You’re funny,” she giggled.

We didn’t discuss the calls themselves, as that was taboo. I forgot most of them within minutes of hanging up anyway. We were allowed to read or do handiwork on our downtime and I was just getting started on Annie Proulx’s new book of short stories about Wyoming.

Four more women dropped out after our first day on the floor. The next day was New Year’s Eve and I stayed home with my first hot dinner in three weeks. Then I fell into bed at a reasonable hour, also for the first time in three weeks, and didn’t get up until noon. The day after New Year’s was my second day of work at the call center and my stomach was bouncing so hard that I almost didn’t go in, but Mickey had literally begged the remaining eight members of our class to hang on for three days before calling it quits and I didn’t have the heart to let him down after giving my word.

And it was true. After two days on the floor,we were memorizing the toggles and combos, typing faster, and no longer afraid that our computers would detonate if we made a mistake. It was like being one of the Japanese pearl divers that Yukio Mishima described in The Sound of Waves, island girls who usually took up their trade after finishing high school and who often had nightmares about drowning during their first weeks on the job until their bodies adapted and they became known as mermaids. I felt more like a cyborg, wired in for audio and video.