People Like You & Keith

Originally published in Wet Ink Vol. 15

I am nobody’s man. I am the guy everyone hates. I am the asshole who bothers you during dinner after a hard day’s work, when spaghetti is twirled on your fork and your mouth is wide open. My name is Dave Rollins. I am a telephone surveyor, an outlaw of the research world, prepared to lie, trick and harass you into listening to: ‘Hi, this is Dave calling from Independent Business Research, how you doing today? That’s nice. This isn’t one of them telesales calls, basically I’m conducting five-minute interviews over the phone and was wondering if you had a free moment to help me out real quick?’ Mine is the voice of your favorite host on your favorite FM station. Don’t fret when the survey takes half an hour. By the time you get back to your cold spaghetti, you will miss me. I am the stranger who wanted your opinion. I am the person who gave you thirty minutes of undivided attention. So please. Trust me. Just listen.

Today began the same as the week before. I arrived ten minutes late, sat down in a beige cubicle and turned on a computer. At Independent Business Research we do not have our own desks. We are disposable drones basking in halogen lights. Our leader is called Al. Allen. Dr. Blacken. He cannot answer your questions about cancer or prescribe you medicine if you are depressed. His title is “Dr.” because he studied marketing for thirteen years. He may be able to provide you with a list of products that ease your pain and he can definitely answer any queries you have about Independent Business Research. Such as: “Can my nine-year-old daughter do the survey for me?” and/or “Do you have a number so I can call you back when I’m free?”

I, too, can answer these questions, because I am Team Leader: “Sorry, unless your daughter owns the business or has been working there for over 48 months, I’m afraid she cannot complete the interview for you,” and “Unfortunately, I’m calling from a call-center. Our phones can only make outbound calls.”

Dr. Blacken made me Team Leader because I am good at what I do. On average, I complete 22 surveys in an eight-hour shift; other employees average 9 to 15. This is not because I call more people. I simply use the ‘empathetic method.’ For example, last week I asked Samantha from Tree Musketeers about the best place to find cheap accommodations in Darwin. I talked with Joe from Nature’s Barber about the pros and cons of Bulgaria joining the European Union and John from Wollongong Tree Loppers about God’s influence (or lack thereof) over his lawn bowling. These tangents were all prompted by the survey. I simply did not stop Samantha, Joe or John when they rambled down a different path. Then, when they felt satisfied that their knowledge and opinions had been listened to I led them back to the questionnaire. They answered the remaining questions as if doing a favor for a friend, and we all hung up happy. That is why I invented the ‘empathetic method.’ Because talking to you is the only thing I’m good at.

Last Friday, Dr. Blacken stepped from his office into the call-center room and leaned against the nearest object (in this case, a filing cabinet). This is his serious pose. He strikes it when he has an announcement. He also clucks his tongue in the back of his throat when he is nervous. I don’t think he knows he is doing this or that other people can hear him, even though it’s loud. “Listen up, folks!” he announced, his tongue clucking. Everyone continued talking. But Al. Allen. Dr. Blacken didn’t seem to mind. In fact, a smile spread across his face. Perhaps this is because he understands that you cannot call people back who did not want to talk to you in the first place, or maybe he just likes the cacophony of telephone voices and pens circling scales from 1 to 6. Maybe for him it’s like the perfect song played at the perfect moment, or like rain drumming down on your roof when you are under the covers with a good book. I don’t know. But when the room finally fell silent, he continued: “As you can probably see from your database, we are running out of arborists to call. Due to these particular circumstances,” he paused and produced a piece of rolled-up paper from his back pocket. “I’ve decided to let you in on a little secret.” He punctuated the air with his paper-roll, as his lips broke into a smile: “Your telephones do not simply dial out. They do, in fact, accept incoming calls. I simply did not want you to feel like a liar if you had to tell a participant they could not call back, when, in reality, they could. You still do not have to lie! I have printed out this sheet, which I will tack to the corkboard.” He scurried to the corkboard like a frightened roach. “If a participant asks if they can call back, simply tell them to hold the line. Walk to the board and find your cubicle on the list. Then write down the corresponding telephone number and give it to the participant. Capice?”

This is Dr. Blacken’s favorite word. It is a call-and-response command: “Capice, Dr. Blacken,” we all chimed in monotone. I nodded my Team Leader nod and mouthed ‘ca-pi-ce,’ so he’d know we were on the same page.

For the past two weeks we have been calling arborists across Australia, asking them what brand of stump grinder and tree lopper their businesses use. It is not interesting, but I do talk with interesting people. For example, Keith.

The funny thing about Keith is that ‘Keith’ is not a very Australian name. I know this because I had never met an Australian named Keith until last Friday, and I have been calling Australians for almost a year now. In America, where I am from, I know many Keiths. My banker’s name is Keith and my Kindergarten teacher’s name was Keith and one time when I was knocked out on the baseball field and one of my teammates asked me what my name was, I said: “Keith,” even though it’s Dave.

So when I first spoke to the Australian Keith and he said it was true that Keith was not a typical Aussie name, and that he would like to tell me more about it, but couldn’t, because his “missus” needed to use the “tele,” I said: “That’s alright, Keith. I’ll give you my phone number and you can call me back.”

I was excited because it was the first time since I moved to Australia that I was giving my phone number to someone, even though, technically, it was only my business number. In fact, I was so excited I forgot to tell Keith that my shift was finishing in thirty-minutes. I knew it probably didn’t matter because most people, people like you and Keith, don’t really want to talk to a stranger for half an hour when you could be washing your car, or finishing a crossword, or writing an email. But still—What if Keith did call back and I made him feel like he’d been abandoned? What if being ditched by a telesurveyor was worse than being ditched by your best friend? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want Keith to find out. So at the end of my shift, I walked into Dr. Blacken’s office and sat down.

“Al,” I said. “Allen. Dr. Blacken? If a guy named “Keith” calls after I leave, could you please tell him I am sorry but I had to go because my shift was over? Please make sure you say I had to. And please tell him that I’ll be back on Monday. And that I’m sorry I missed his call.”

Dr. Blacken was staring out the only window at Independent Business Research. I do not know what he could have been staring at, because there is nothing outside that window except a gigantic brick wall. Perhaps he was tired of staring at the white walls of his boring office. I kept waiting for him to wheel around in his swivel chair, but he never did. I thought of asking him: ‘Can you hear me?’ Because maybe he was listening to an Ipod or meditating on the importance of statistics in the 21st century. I don’t know. But instead I left him a note on his desk.

Dr. Blacken. If someone named Keith calls could you please tell him I’m sorry, but I had to leave? Please make sure you say I had to leave. I don’t want him to think I was being rude or that I don’t want to talk with him. It’s very important. Thank You,

Dave (Team Leader)

Earlier today, my phone rang. The number that popped up on my computer screen was not a Western Australia area code (it was a local 07 number) so I did not expect it to be Keith, because Keith lives in Yellowdine, which is a small town in Western Australia.

“G’day, is Dave there?” the caller asked.

“This is Dave,” I said. “I’m Dave.”

“Hello, Dave. This is Keith. I talked to you last Friday?”

“Keith?” I said. “Yeah! Of course.” It was weird because his voice didn’t have the same country twang, but I didn’t want to say anything because we weren’t really friends-friends yet. So I said, “Thanks for calling back, Keith. You ready to finish the interview?” Then I flipped through the papers on my desk so he wouldn’t know that I had pinned his questionnaire to the wall above my phone.

“Dave?” he said.

“Just a sec, Keith. I’ve got to find it.” I unpinned the survey and flipped to the last question I’d circled. Then I read the question after it: “Okay, Keith. On a scale of one to six, with one being very low and six being very high, what durability would you rate your stump grinder?”

“I don’t know, Dave,” he said. “I don’t really want to live anymore.”

“Oh,” I said. Then we said nothing. In the phone there was no sound, as if Keith were in a cave in the desert in the middle of the Outback.

“Why?” I eventually asked.

He made a funny sound in the earpiece, like his tongue was scratching the back of his throat. “I don’t know,” he said. “The doctor says I’m experiencing post-diagnosis depression. He says it’s normal.”

“What were you diagnosed with?”

“Prostate cancer. Almost a year ago, July 26th.”

“And how has this diagnosis affected you?” I asked, instantly hating how I said ‘diagnosis’ and ‘affected’ as if I knew what I was talking about.

“How has it affected me?” he scoffed. “Well, it’s made my life peaches, Dave. I mean. I’m fucking depressed, mate. The doctor said I should go on vacation, but I don’t know where to go. He says I should go on a cruise. ‘Live it up for once,’ he said. But I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really want to. My brother’s down in Sydney. I visited him when I first found out. We went to the Opera House and saw some Italian opera and everything. But he’s busy with his wife and kids, you know?” Again, he made that funny sound. “Now it’s back to business. I guess I don’t know what else to do.”

“Besides tree lopping?” I said.

“Yeah. Tree lopping. Stump grinding. Arborist stuff.”

“What about your missus?” I asked. “What does she say?”

“I don’t have a missus, Dave. I don’t have kids and I don’t have anybody to talk to. That’s what I’m saying. My life has been reduced to talking to a telesurveyor on a Monday afternoon in quote-unquote ‘beautiful sunny Queensland.’”

This hurt my feelings, but I said: “Yeah, I guess I am pretty boring. I mean, usually I…”

“Like I said,” he interrupted. “I’m thinking of ending it.”

“Don’t say that!” I yelled, perhaps too forcefully. I had no idea what I was talking about and it terrified me. “I don’t know. You just shouldn’t.”

“I shouldn’t?”

“No,” I said. “Just try and find something that makes you happy, or at least content.” I didn’t know what to say next and Keith wasn’t talking. “Maybe you should see a psychologist,” I continued. “I mean, a real psychologist. Someone who can give you drugs.”

“I’m on drugs, Dave. Everyone is on drugs. They don’t work. And I don’t need a bloody psychologist, mate. I need a gun. Capice?”

“Capice, Dr. Blacken,” I said automatically.

There was a long pause. On the other end of the line, I could hear Al. Allen. Dr. Blacken. Keith? clucking his tongue. Everyone around me was still reading surveys through telephones. I wondered who the real Keith was. Had he called back or not? Who called in the first place? Did it matter?

“Maybe you just need a friend,” I whispered into the mouthpiece.

But he had already hung up.

I came to Australia because I wanted to experience new things. In the end, I experienced very little. But I learned a lot. I learned that you and Keith and Dr. Blacken and me are all the same. We are all human beings and we are all essential to each other. Which is why you agreed to listen to me in the first place. You needed distraction. You wanted to get away from your own mundane life. I understand. Now you are ready for me to stop talking so you can go back to your spaghetti. I am also ready to stop talking, but I still have a week of the same shit questions ahead of me, a week of the same shit answers. If I am lucky, I have inspired some of you, as some of you have inspired me. Perhaps you will hang up feeling proud to be who you are. I don’t know. I know I don’t mind living through you. And that it doesn’t matter if I quit or if Dr. Blacken fires me. It doesn’t matter if he kills himself, or if he dies of cancer next month. Maybe he will live to be eighty-three—who knows? Maybe he will step out of his office in a moment and ask if I’d like to join him for a beer after work. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have talked. We didn’t have to become friends. We didn’t have to like each other. We just had to listen.

Self-Portrait With Angel Olsen