I was dumped into a small, empty, blank room, a faux-wood desk pushed against the corner facing the wall, with nothing atop it but a white plastic telephone that looked quite similar to the corded one that sat on the desk in my old home until I was eleven. It was a scene straight out of Office Space, without the luxury of an open-air cubicle, a window, or the presence of any co-workers. Half of the little office was for me, and the other half belonged to the extraneous pieces of random furniture; a loud, metal filing cabinet, an extra desk turned on its side, and two gumball machines. It felt like quarantine.
I was given three pages full of landline numbers to call, and a script to read should someone actually pick up the phone. Working in a restaurant had already pre-programmed in me what I might deem a “professional” voice, where a little person in my head screams “CUSTOMER! CUSTOMER!” whenever it recognizes that I am supposed to obtain something from someone. This primitive urge will always insure that my voice instantly rises in pitch, frequency, and sweetness until I sound like I’m thirteen-years-old, and reverses all hope of authority. My intent to command the civic duty out of the public as a whole becomes my eliciting of sympathy from the Elderly, who tell me that I sound like their granddaughter. I’ll take what I can get.
After the first ten calls with no answer, I was convinced that aliens were attempting to contact me; the bizarre sounds and noises emitting from the other end of the line appeared as I was punching the numbers in, and happened so suddenly that I flinched every time, even though I was completely aware of what was going to happen. I swear, the fifth person I called was using dial-up. I understand fear of technological change, even somewhat share in the resistance against some of it, but ho… ly… crap. One eighty-four year-old woman who picked up the phone refused to answer any questions for herself, and instead insisted that her children and grandchildren would answer this way, or that way, and another yelled at me for calling during her kids’ bath time. One man politely stopped me to say he was eating dinner. The next call I made, someone picked up and actually listened to my opening paragraph. Praise Jesus!
It was a lady with the vivacity of a young woman. When I read my spiel to her, she exclaimed, “Oh, oh! Wait here! Let me get my husband, he’s so into this stuff!” Something rustled around on the other end of the line as I heard her attempt to scurry away, a muffled thud, and a “Shit.” I think I caught a glimpse of future-me. I waited for all of 15 seconds before another person came on the line, clearing his throat. “Hello?” I began my spiel again. He interrupted. “You don’t have to convince me, I’ll do it.” I read the first question, asking what he believes the biggest problem facing the county is. “WOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooow. Well.” And he was off. His long-winded speech ranged from taxes, to compost curbside pick-up, to gun control, qualifying absolutely everything he said, as if he were in argument with himself. It was obvious from the start that he was a thinker and an idealist, and had been unknowingly waiting for an opportunity to unload his thoughts somewhere, and I was the girl waiting with the push-cart. We had been told in training that we could not let the survey-ees speak for a prolonged amount of time; we had been warned that we could not sit and listen for fear of inefficiency and confusion of answers. I looked down at the survey sheet I was to fill out for him, and knew I had to pick one thing to represent him, an impossible task; I was so rapt with fascination in his sermon that I didn’t stop him. I let him run free at my own cost, and in doing so, he became my teacher. I quickly circled the “Other” option and wrote in “everything”. I was trained to end the survey then and there, knowing he would take a ridiculous amount of time to complete it; instead, I opened Pandora’s Box. I asked him next which party he identified with, and which party he most trusted. “WOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooow. None and neither.” And the pistol was fired again.
I believe I spent one full hour out of my three-hour time limit on the survey of this one man. My last question came out with an air of finality and a bit of sadness: “And what is your age, sir?” I sat and waited for it. “WOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooow. 64. Thank you for doing the community a civil service.” For the first time since sitting in that little air-tight cell, I smiled. “My privilege, sir.” Could he hear a smile over the phone?
At the end of the night, I came out with more than double the completions of the average first-time surveyor, so I was extremely fortunate my supervisor didn’t give me a verbal whipping for sitting up with this “Wow” Man. In any case, only three of the many students participating were unpaid, and I was one of them. As such, my expectations were quite minimal, but the Wow Man paid me back in a way I had never anticipated; the entire time, I pictured him sitting in a velvet-plush chair, thin wired glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, sipping archaic Brandy from a snifter, the possible twin brother of the Dos Equis man. It was perfect. The anonymous Wow Man residing somewhere in Anne Arundel County can rest assured he has made an impact on something, and that something is me.