I cannot write straight. Even a simple task like a three sentence letter to a mortgage lender confirming the residency of friends gets complicated. I envision a wily, cigar chomping bank examiner (Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity) pouring over my submission. I feel the need to establish motive. Why would these people live with us rent free for months while they are waiting for their house purchase to close?
Although I was not the subject, I felt the need to establish context. I began with JoAnne and me leaving Florida and moving to Minneapolis. I barely touched on the difference between Naples and Calhoun/Isles. From there I segued (quite cleverly, I thought) into how this wonderful couple had, much like Native people long ago, adopted JoAnne and me. We were not Pilgrims, but we were unprepared for the winter of 1977, which was the coldest ever until 1978.
Admittedly, mention of our friends’ steadfastness and loyalty was not what the bank was seeking. I thought our friends’ presence at the births and (much later) marriages of both of our children would help me wrap up the letter, which was heading north of six pages. I was about to “bring it on home,” which I thought a mortgage broker, if steeped in the blues of Lightnin Hopkins, would appreciate.
JoAnne interceded. Grabbing the computer, she dashed off a couple of quick sentences listing our names and address, and stating that our friends were living with us rent free from one date to another. There was no arc, no character development, no plot points! I felt badly for her. Our friends must have also as they chose to present her version to the bank, to not hurt her feelings.
This highlights a major philosophical difference between us. JoAnne contends that office workers forced to engage me by phone, e-mail or in person do not want a long, circuitous, “clever” response. She claims I am not as funny as I believe myself to be and, that workers, like Jack Webb on Dragnet, just want the facts! “These people have quotas to reach. They do not have time for your foolishness.”
Whereas I believe that the more bureaucratized and routine the job, the more people enjoy and even need a little humor to break it up. (S)he who laughs, lasts. Long ago, as a baby boomer with ho hum credentials searching for my first job, I needed a way to make my resume memorable. I printed it on brown steak paper. It not only stuck out in a sea of white, but the paper was so slippery, no pile could contain it. I cannot say it got me a job, but on a number of occasions when I went for an interview the secretary referred to me as “the guy with the resume” and called her colleagues in to see me.
Nowadays a form asking — for the third time — for my relationship to a next of kin deserves the response “Frosty.” Someone who reviews records and loan applications in a Kafkaesque cubical may look favorably upon someone who makes him smile. When I hear “This call may be monitored for quality control purposes” I want the supervisor of this poor frightened bureaucrat to know what kind of wing nuts their representative has to put up with! When I am prompted to pay attention “as the options have changed,” after I get a live person, I inquire when the options changed. How are people enjoying the new options? Did you get to vote? Do you foresee the options changing again?
When I call to dispute a claim or request service I hope to be connected to someone not totally beaten down by the faceless, gut wrenching, soul stealing system that engulfs us all. A fellow traveler able to at least momentarily step back and view the existential absurdity, and glimpse the chasm between their envisioned future at six or seven as a cowboy or ballerina and the reality of grown-up life as a gate keeping, no-saying, customer service hotline representative. None of us aspired to long shifts with hovering supervisors and enforced cheerfulness in a windowless cubicle. I offer humor, sympathy, and a brief respite from a day mired in a loop of co-pays, eligibility, and exclusions, or widgets, waivers, and warranties.
Tom H. Cook is happy to be out of the rat race, although he wishes he had gotten more cheese.