Alexa Rose Steinberg
Throughout the evening, I hear explanations of why people can’t talk when I call. “I’m cooking dinner for my kids,” women tell me, harried. “You know how it is.”
“My husband will be home soon,” one woman says. “Dinner is our time together.”
I murmur sympathetically into my headset to each person as I mark little bubbles on the computer screen in front of me, setting up another round of appointments for tomorrow. It is nighttime in July, five years since I graduated college. Here, in my gray-carpeted cubicle, I am surrounded by other people in other cubicles. We are all calling randomly selected Massachusetts phone numbers, making small lacunae in people’s evenings. “Good evening, my name is Alexa and I am calling from the Boston Globe,” I say. “Would you be willing to answer a few questions?”
Mostly women answer when we call. There is such a statistical imbalance in who picks up that we have to ask to speak to the person with the Most Recent Birthday to recalibrate the male-female ratio. “MRB isn’t home, call back later,” I might write on my computer screen as a note. Another person on another shift will dial this number again. “He’s asleep,” I might type. “Try tomorrow, earlier.”
Despite these efforts, I speak mainly to females. The women who acquiesce respond generously to my questions of how they feel about the governor, budget deficits, about potentially paring the number of penguins at the Franklin Park Zoo. These women tend to be older. They live alone. Often they are widows, the MRBs by default. They have the time and the desire to talk.
Each interview is supposed to take fifteen minutes but, despite my boss’s wishes, I find myself staying on the phone with these women for half an hour or more. Because, in truth, I don’t know what it is like to cook dinner for my kids or to go with my husband to the Gardner Museum. I am only just learning how to live, it sometimes seems, and how to live alone. It helps me to talk to these women, even just about their survey responses. It allows me to glimpse who I might be some day.
My friend Rosie moved away for the summer and so I offered to take care of her cat. Penny is ten, a longhaired black slinking creature who desires human company above all else. I do too, but I have no complaints about Penny. She is a lovely housemate. She is a loud cat though, announcing her every unhappiness with a yowl. “What Penny, what?” I will ask her plaintively, holding my palms out for her to smell. I look down at her looking back up at me and wonder if I need her as much as she needs me.
Sometimes, I follow Penny, walking from room to room. We move from the green-painted kitchen overlooking the backyard into the tiny bathroom and then through to the yellow living room and onto the sinking futon couch. Then back again. I listen as Penny’s paws patter on the wood floors, and I try to figure out the reason for her complaint. I freshen her water, pour her some salmon-flavored kibble. I scratch her ears. When she is happy, Penny will curl up next to me and purr a constant, consistent hum. She will expose her soft belly, close both of her eyes, and lie there for hours. I am too young to become a cat lady, but old enough to appreciate these small moments of joy.
At times, the women I am surveying will ask me questions, forgetting that I am just a paid surveyor. When I ask them the questions about how long they have lived in Massachusetts, they will query me, too, on where I live, how long I have spent there. “I’m in New Hampshire,” I tell them. “I have spent the past two years here.”
“And before that?” they ask.
How is it that over the phone we feel comfortable talking about our lives, our values, to relative strangers? Is it loneliness or is it simply some greater belief in the importance of answering survey questions for a hometown newspaper? I wonder if these women would be as conversational, as forthright, if I were a man. Do my female voice and affirming responses somehow invite coffee-klatch chatter? Can these women sense how much our conversations please me? I am still trying to learn how others see me. I am still trying to learn how I see myself.
This job at the survey center is not my first that has required speaking to strangers on the telephone. I spent my last two years in college volunteering for the campus crisis hotline. After college, I spent another two years answering phones for the Washington, D.C. chapter of 1-800-SUICIDE. I cannot explain why I joined these campus hotlines, except that I knew instinctively I would be good at it. I tend to remain calm when others are screaming; I am someone who friends call late, knowing I’ll always pick up.
At times, though, it is terrifying to work at a hotline, to feel partially responsible for the lives of others. Even taking care of Penny, remembering to feed her each day, to clean her little box and to give her fresh water, sometimes requires brazen confidence in my own abilities.
Toward the end of the Globe survey, I soften my voice: I have to inquire about the respondent’s annual income. It is a delicate question, one I don’t enjoy asking. We have been getting along so well and I hate to ruin it. Sometimes the respondents answer, but most brush the question off and I move quickly along.
The next topic is education. The women I speak with often answer the “highest level of schooling” question with secretarial school. There is no option for that on the computer so we consider together which category fits. Does it constitute “some college”? Is it simply “other”? We decide it belongs in the “technical school” box. “It’s a skill set,” one woman says, confirming our choice.
Usually, by the time I say, “Thank you, that’s all” at the end of our conversation, there is some relief. But many respondents, by this point, have gotten into it. A polite stranger has just spent the past half-hour asking their opinions on politics, policy, and what they see as the biggest problem facing the state of Massachusetts today, and they are eager to share their thoughts. There are no wrong answers. “Is Massachusetts going in the right direction or is it way off track?” How about your life? What about mine?
As I hang up, I think about what these women will do after they get off the phone, if they will walk slowly into their Tiffany-lamped living rooms or into a bedroom with a scratchy floral comforter to pick up a book. A biography, maybe. The story of someone else’s life. Or will they turn on their aging television with its wobbling antennas? Perhaps they will call their son or daughter to announce that “a nice young woman just called me on the telephone.”
My own grandmother lives in an apartment in New York City where all of the furniture is covered in plastic. “So it will keep,” she explains, nodding her pinkish-blond hair. It is a house of white porcelain swan figurines and red velvet chairs with gold braided tassels. My grandmother still has a rotary phone hanging in her kitchen. Her fingers are too arthritic to reach into the circular slots to dial and her eyes are too watery for her to see the numbers clearly. She has a live-in nurse now who takes care of her, who answers the phone for her and dials her daughter—my mother—to discuss things like the nice young woman who just called on the telephone. If my mother is not at home, my grandmother will leave a message: “Gloria, your mother called.” She calls nearly every day, often leaving multiple, identical messages over a span of hours.
My mother, in fact, rarely answers her phone. She is always on another line when I call, or in the subway, or she has forgotten to take her phone off silent after a meeting. When she does pick up she usually says to me, “I can’t talk now, but I’ll call you after lunch?” But I will have to dial her again a day later, as a reminder.
My mother has an iPhone now and at night she sits in her bed, next to my father who is already asleep, and plays Scramble over and over again. She can find patterns in the letters easily; she converts them into one word, then two, then many. I cannot imagine my mother participating in a fifteen-minute caller survey, but if she did, the iPhone would be next to her, attached via headset, as she painted her toenails at the edge of the bed, the cat curled beside her. She would answer call-waiting midway through.
Last week it was raining in New York. I was there visiting with my parents. Their bedroom holds the only television and so I was in there, sitting on the bed, when I first felt the sudden storm, whisking through the windows, pulsating on my bare arms. I inched away from the windows, looking fearfully out toward the abruptly blackened sky. Later, I would learn that Central Park lost over 100 trees in the storm, that parks all around the city were covered in felled branches and ripped tree trucks.
I quickly dialed my mother, who had called ahead a half hour earlier to tell my father to start dinner. She didn’t answer.
“I’m going out,” my father called to me, opening the front door while extending his foot to prevent the cat from sneaking past. I took over making the tomato sauce for dinner. Fresh basil, oregano, some mint from the window box. My father returned ten minutes later with my mother. She had called him from beneath a nearby awning, requesting an umbrella. “It didn’t seem as though it was ever going to let up,” she said to me, shaking off her curls. “I thought the storm was going to last forever. Thank goodness Dad came with the umbrella.”
“I called you, too,” I tell her.
“Oh dear,” she says, glancing down at her phone. “I must have missed it. But that sauce smells delicious.”
Sometimes, while I am dialing random households, seeking survey participants, I hope for my aunt in Cambridge. There is always the chance that her number will pop up on my screen. My call will find her on one of the three floors of her house with its Chinese tapestries and exhibits of wire sculptures in the style of Calder’s circus people. She lives there alone now, since her partner died three years ago. When I go there for dinner, the two of us sit at a long table of Indonesian teak and speak quietly, as though to leave the silence undisturbed.
I imagine dialing her number though and saying, “Good evening, my name is Alexa and I am calling from…” and she will cut in and say, “My niece is named Alexa,” and it will be a funny reunion that will make us both laugh. I won’t ask her about her income and she will hang up happily and dial my father, her brother, to tell him how I called and we talked about politics.
After I speak to these women, I want to sit for a moment, to mull a bit over our half-hour interaction. It is likely the only one we will ever have. Will I ever glimpse them on the street wearing plastic rain bonnets to keep their hair? Will I catch them in South Station, at the vet or the zoo? I’ll never know. Who else am I missing? Who else will I never meet? It is silly to wonder of these things, I know.
In truth, however, right after I finish conversing with these women— women named Judith or Gladys or Sheryl, names I don’t hear anymore on people younger than fifty—I have to call someone else. Another phone number always pops up on my computer screen, blinking expectantly. “Good evening, my name is Alexa. Would you be willing to participate in an anonymous survey?”
I ask and ask and ask. Four hours straight, four days a week, I keep calling. Usually, I get busy signals or answering machines or people who hang up as soon as they hear I am not someone they know. I hope for the Judiths and Gladyses and Sheryls. In a four-hour shift I am lucky to get three of them.
It is surprising to me how much pleasure I get out of these survey questionnaires, that I am willing to put up with hours of hang ups and exhausted men who just got home from work and don’t want to talk about politics. “Why would I tell you anything?” they ask, tiredly. But I enjoy my job because of the men who do agree to participate in the survey, men who muffle the phone for a moment in the beginning of the conversation, asking their wives if it is okay to talk. I like it because of the older women who tell me about their first careers, and for the thirty-one-year-old Asian woman who was embarrassed that she didn’t recognize the name of a city council member and felt the need to explain she had only just arrived in Boston. She was not yet a U.S. citizen but engaged to one. Another woman went to high school in Hawaii with Barack Obama: “He was just Barry then,” she tells me. “He was no different than the rest of us.”
When I leave work at 9:00 p.m., I drive slowly home past rows of lit houses and bright windows displaying families sitting around shining living room televisions. At my own home, sitting on the futon while petting Penny, I might pick up a book or watch a movie, or perhaps talk on the phone with friends. I might share with them some tidbit about the lives of the women I surveyed, some maxim that applies to us—the aquarium is a wonderful place to meet men. Mainly though, I keep the conversations to myself. They are private, after all.
Because I am used to working at hotlines where people call me, it is strange now to have this job where the people I am calling do not necessarily want to talk, are too busy to talk. Still, I understand. My friends and I also have less time to chat, as we get busier with graduate school and boyfriends and professional lives. We live far away now, from our families and each other. We see each other irregularly and fleetingly—weddings, birthdays, family affairs.
I am hoping all this uncertainty will slow and I will have time to become the type of person who answers surveys, sympathetic to the young women who call me in the evenings, working to pay the bills. That I will become the type of woman I speak to on the telephone, who volunteers at the local polling site and who brings her tow-headed children to see the white tigers pacing and pacing at the zoo.
As I walk slowly up the stairs to my house each evening, I think of all this, of how the rest of my night will unspool, of what my life will be like, of where my ex-boyfriend is now that I let him go. When I take out my keys at my heavy wood door, I lean into it for a moment and I stop to listen. Penny is inside, alone, waiting for me and yowling about who knows what.