My breaking point came the day of the big fight on HBO. Boston was in the middle of one of the worst blizzards I’d ever seen and I’d lived there all my life. The governor declared a state of emergency. All non-essential personnel were being asked to stay home. But not me. I was at work. There were no snow days in my line of work. While everyone was home in bed sipping hot chocolate and watching old movies, I was trudging through snow drifts and dodging ice slicks on the sidewalk. I was a customer service representative for Cablevision of Boston.
I spent about eight hours listening to homebound subscribers complain about anything and everything about their cable service. My call log that day was filled with complaints from people who had no cable. I patiently explained to at least three dozen people that the cable was out all over the city because of the blizzard, the blowing winds, and the snow. I took a call from a man in Chestnut Hill, a fancy Boston suburb.
“Good Morning, Cablevision of Boston. This is Ms. Katz, how can I help you?”
“I’m wondering if you can send somebody out to install my cable,” he said. “I’m going to be home all day today.” Of course he’s home all day. There’s a state of emergency and at least a foot of snow on the ground. I looked out the window while he was talking. I saw a red Subaru skid to a halt at a snow-covered stop sign.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “We’ve cancelled all our installations for today.”
The man from the fancy suburb wanted to know why.
“Well there’s a blizzard and a state of emergency and lightning so we don’t want our technicians climbing the poles in this weather.” All of these things were true. It made sense to me.
“Why don’t you want them climbing the poles?”
“Because they might die.” I said.
There was a pause on the subscriber’s end of the line. “Well don’t you think they could at least come out here and try?”
This was my first job out of college. I was glad to be getting paid to do anything. I was expected to answer one hundred fifty calls a day from the angry, the penny-pinching, the confused, and the technologically challenged subscribers in one of the country’s largest cable markets. I adjusted bills, helped hook up DVRs, set up service calls, and listened to nice old ladies try to fix me up with their grandsons.
“You sound like such a nice girl. Is that Mrs. Katz or Miss Katz?” they’d ask.
“Um, it’s Ms.,” I would tell them.
“Oh so you’re single!” they’d squeal. “My grandson is in dental school/business school/law school. He needs to meet a nice girl/wife/meal ticket.”
My mother thought I should let them fix me up. She probably wanted to convince herself that the reason I had a minimum wage job talking to hundreds of angry people every day was to meet a nice boy. On days like this I wanted to believe there was a higher purpose to my job, maybe not just to meet boys.
I sat with about twelve other representatives in a large open bullpen of desks and computers. The rest of the CSRs were upstairs with the sales department and in several other locations. The walls were beige, the carpet was brownish beige, and the whiteboard was filled with directives. “No service calls after 4 p.m. on Saturday;” “Showtime special ended 12/31.” I sat next to a part-time employee named Donna who was our demi-celebrity. She knew some members of New Kids on the Block. My favorite co-workers were Joan and Andre. Joan had an actual cubicle and worked with engineers to solve difficult wiring issues. Andre went to Dartmouth. We had good talks about music when the phones weren’t ringing.
We had two large TVs in the customer service area so that we could try to see what subscribers were complaining about when they called. Sometimes we could, most of the time we could not. During the blizzard, the screens were tuned to the local channel that always sent the same woman reporter to stand on a bridge in Chatham on Cape Cod. She was clutching her microphone in one hand and holding on to the bridge with the other. Her nose and cheeks were red; wet, sticky snow clung to the pieces of hair sticking out of her knit cap. She looked like I felt: battered by the elements, but determined to press on.
I could see the other TV was as usual on ESPN. Sometimes I would get up and grab the remote and try to change the channel to MTV or maybe Turner Classic Movies. But I was always voted down by co-workers who wanted to watch wrestling or basketball. One thing we all loved was the Bad Movie at Four. It aired on one of the Superchannels, WGN maybe, and was always a really terrible horror movie, a bad action movie, or sappy romance. We all looked forward to the Bad Movie at Four. It was one of the few things I actually liked about my job.
ESPN was in full-on hype mode for the fight on HBO. Because of the storm, most of the calls I took that day were from people concerned about HBO.
“Hey! What’s wrong with my HBO?” they’d ask, dispensing with all pleasantries, such as “Hello.”
“I’m sorry, sir. The storm has knocked out a lot of neighborhoods. We’re hoping to get them back soon.” This is what we were told to say. I had no idea whether or not it was true or even possible.
“You better get it fixed before the fight tonight.”
“We’re going to do everything we can, sir,” I told him. I wanted this to be true. Otherwise I’d be spending the rest of my life adjusting bills from angry customers. Some people threatened to sue me personally. People say a lot of things when they can’t watch television.
“I’ve got money on that fight,” the man said.
I looked up and saw Kenny, one of the lead technicians, come down the stairs from the second floor covered in snow and holding a large shovel. He was a big stocky guy with curly red hair. He had been up on the roof shoveling snow out of the satellite dishes. I ended the call with the boxing fan and asked Kenny if there was any chance they would get HBO working in time for the fight.
Kenny looked at me as he stomped snow off his boots. “It’s not us,” he said. “It’s a satellite problem.”
A brief primer: Sometimes the satellites that transmit cable channels back to Earth are blocked by sunspots. Sometimes they even fall out of their orbit. The result is no signal on certain channels until they can switch to another satellite or do whatever it is they can do from Earth to fix it. Usually it’s no big deal. Although there was this one time when Univision was out for about a week. That was about the time I started bringing a Spanish-English dictionary to work. I hated telling all these sweet abuelas they were going to miss their telenovelas. Sometimes I’d tell them via their grandchildren/translators.
“But my grandmother says she needs to know what happens next. It’s her favorite show.”
That’s why it was important not to be too sympathetic. If you decide you like the customer and that he or she has a valid issue, sometimes you wind up giving them your name. Then they’ll call you every time the littlest thing goes wrong. They start thinking they have an “in.” Then on snow days like this, they have all the time in the world to call you with every little problem they can think of: They can’t remember if they subscribe to Lifetime; has that twenty-seven cent line charge been on their bills all this time; the squiggly lines on Oprah’s face are back.
When they realize you can’t make all their troubles go away, they turn on you and demand to speak to a supervisor. They complain you are nothing but a mean, vindictive, and ignorant corporate lackey. I don’t think I was particularly mean or vindictive, but I probably was a corporate lackey. When I started here about a year ago, I didn’t think people could get so worked up about cable TV.
I spoke to a woman who had local channels but no premium channels: no CNN, no AMC, and, most importantly, no Disney Channel. We weren't sending technicians out on repair calls. On top of that, nobody gets a priority service call unless they have no cable at all. The next open repair call was four days away.
“I don’t think you understand,” she said in that angry mom whisper-hiss that always means business. “I have four small children who can’t play outside.” She sounded desperate.
I put the mom of four on hold and went to talk to Joey, the loveable shift supervisor. He was kind of short and had a mop of black hair. In the sweaters and jeans he always wore, he looked like he was about twelve. But he knew more about how cable television service actually worked than anyone I have ever known. I don’t think I ever saw him get mad and I don’t think he ever failed to get anyone to do what he wanted them to do.
“Joey, help me.” I said, sitting down beside him. “I have a mom with four kids and no Disney Channel.”
“Tell her to read to them.” Joey was a sweetheart, but he was also good at his job.
“Oh come on,” I said. “Isn’t there somebody working out there who could check her service?”
“There’s a freakin’ snowstorm out there, Franny. All the techs wanna go home. To their own homes.”
“Isn’t Jay out there? Can’t you get Jay?” Jay was my favorite tech. He could do anything and fix anything. He was also a charmer who could lull even the most irate customers onto a cloud of calm.
“Jay’s busy. Tell them to play Candyland. Chutes and Ladders.”
“Great,” I said. “Just great.” I got up and started walking back to my desk.
“They could color,” he shouted after me. “Kids still color, don’t they?”
I suggested none of these things to the Mom of Four. Even if I wanted to, she hung up on me before I could say anything. People love slamming down the phone when I can’t give them what they want. I think they think this will upset me. It doesn’t. In fact I almost prefer it. It helps me make my quota.
Sometimes I get to hang up on unruly subscribers. The company policy is three swear words and down goes the receiver. They also got a special notation in the call log, on the service tickets, and the subscriber file. It is wrong to assume you can act like an asshole to a customer service person with impunity. Everybody from the general manager to the guy who dumps the trash will know exactly who you are and all the four-letter words you used to express your feelings about not being able to watch Showtime last night.
My last call of the day was a man with a pretty good grasp of four-letter words and a penchant for mansplaining things to women. Even things he knew nothing about. He was telling me his TV picture was from one channel and the sound was from another. He said this happened all the time. I tried to interrupt a few times to help him, but he kept saying “Let me finish, sweetheart.” Sweetheart. It made me think of the old Doonesbury comic with Joanie telling Mike why she left her husband. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘My wife, I think I’ll keep her’ . . . I broke his nose.” I imagined breaking the nose of Mr. Let Me Finish Sweetheart. I let out a happy sigh just thinking about it.
“Sir, if I can just interrupt you for one second . . . ”
He wanted to blame the storm, the cable box manufacturers, the negligent technicians who installed it, and the brainless girls who answered the phone for his sound-and-picture snafu. But not this time. This time I knew what was wrong. I knew why the picture and the sound weren’t in sync. It was my job to know. But Mr. Sweetheart kept talking. He started saying something about fraud and misrepresentation and litigation. I think some people actually enjoy being annoyed.
I looked out the window again. One of the Zakarias brothers from the bodega at the end of the block was pushing a snowblower across the sidewalk. They were five Zakarias brothers. I think the oldest one, Charlie, liked me a little bit. He used to let me have free cans of diet ginger ale.
“Do you know what litigation is,” Mr. Sweetheart said. “Or is that too big a word for someone like you?” I put him on hold for a minute so I could gather my thoughts and try not to scream. And also so he could maybe calm down and shut up about lawsuits.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said in my most nonchalant professional voice. “Can you double check that your television is on Channel 3 for me. Not the cable, but the television.” He didn’t want to check, because what did I take him for anyway? I told him it was just something we had to ask before we were allowed to write up service tickets, the same way cops on TV always ask the grieving wife of a murder victim if she was having an affair. But it’s not procedure. I just figured he wouldn’t do it if some girl at the cable company asked. There had to be a policy somewhere, presumably written by men. He went to check. In the background I could hear the TV. When he came back the phone, it was to hang it up.
“You’re welcome,” I said to the dial tone. “Thank you for calling Cablevision of Boston.”
The snow looked like it had stopped. The company made a decision to show HBO for free so everyone could see the fight. I put on my boots and wrapped a long wool scarf around my neck three or four times before putting on my ear muffs and mittens for the walk to the subway. The snow had turned to slushy rain and that meant the roads and sidewalks would be covered in ice again. Standing at the subway, I looked up the street to see if I could see a train coming but there was nothing on the horizon.
I looked in the other direction and saw a tall, skinny guy with a backpack and a red knitted cap smoking a cigarette and poking at the ice with his foot.
“The stupid train isn’t coming,” I said. “And I’ve been waiting forever! ”
The guy in the red hat kept kicking the ice. “Well there’s a lot of snow.”
“It’s just not fair!” I said. He shrugged.
Tears rolled down my cheeks in frustration. I am not the kind of person who complains to random strangers at a subway stop. I wanted to be mad at somebody, too. I wanted to sit on my couch with my cat and a cup of tea then pick up my phone and complain about my cable or my electric bill or my life. Maybe all those deranged subscribers want is someone to tell them everything is going to be all right. For a split second I thought I should try to be kinder, more empathetic, more understanding to the people who just want to watch television. And then I got over it.