Sorry, Right Number!

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It may indicate a distinctly unbusinesslike attitude, but I regard picking up the telephone receiver to make a call with the same enthusiasm I’d muster picking up a poisonous snake. I realize that this is antithetical to all that is supposedly good and true about Our Way of Life—our gregariousness, our ability to “take it,” our Winning Attitude.

I never played sports, and I never liked being in a club whether it would have me as a member or not. I actually quit the Cub Scouts while my mother was the Den Mother and the meetings were held at our house. They continued in our cellar for several weeks while I stayed in my room and watched cartoons.

Organized character-building activities were too much like school. They didn’t teach me confidence in interacting with my peers, or inculcate in me the advantages of being a team player, or instill in me anything other than a desire to retreat to my bedroom and listen to records. I tried to be gregarious but it just wasn’t in my nature. Dale Carnegie would have wanted to perform an exorcism on me, and he’d have called in Norman Vincent Peale to help.

I see now that the Winning Attitude is tempered in the fire of group hazing, which was harrowing enough in school itself. I was commanded to attend school, but I wasn’t going to opt for extracurriculars, and voluntarily jostle among an inordinate number of my close contemporaries. The call of solitude was irresistible. I understand that by avoiding Trial by Companionship, I was missing out on essential training for adult life. As such, I have possibly one of the worst telephone techniques in the Western Hemisphere.

When I answer a call, I never say, “Good afternoon! Syncopated Times!” No, I leave the caller to guess that they’ve reached the right number by forcing them to ask. That’s assuming I haven’t let the answering machine (with its generic message) grab the call so I can ascertain that it’s not someone in East Asia trying to convince me that my Windows computer needs repair. Once I’m on the line I generally sound human within a minute or two—or five. If the call snaps me out of an involved train of thought, maybe ten.

I tend to regard the Caller ID function as a shortcut through precious minutes of conversation. This begins to feel like a mind-reading trick if I haven’t informed my caller that I can see who they are. Recently, I made it almost all the way through a call requesting a change of address until my caller suddenly said, “Do you know who this is?” I had to confess that I did, and that it wasn’t because I had intelligence from the NSA. It was just me avoiding proper nouns.

If I make a cold call and it goes badly, it can set me back for days. It often can’t be helped, however. As it may happen, I sometimes receive an “Unable to Forward” notice in the mail (for which I must pay fifty-nine cents postage due). When one showed up indicating nearly a year left to run on the subscription, I felt compelled to use my detective skills to find the telephone number of the missing subscriber. Sometimes the return is in error and I’ll send out a fresh copy of the missed paper. So I had to ascertain if that had been the case in this instance.

I dialed the phone with dread, as I always do. It took me about four tries to phrase my question in a coherent manner. “Hello—Is this Mrs. ____? This is Andy Senior calling from The Syncopated Times, and, uh, your paper seems to have come back to me, I mean with an ‘Unable to Forward’ label from your address, and, uh, you’re obviously still there—”

“You got your paper back because we don’t want it.”
“You didn’t want it? What did I do wrong?”
“We just don’t want it. Goodbye.” CLICK.

Now, if I had a Winning Attitude, I wouldn’t share this slice of life. I’d put another coat of varnish on my veneer of positivity, and behave as if nothing were amiss. I have to confess it threw me. I can just about handle people being rude on the internet, but I haven’t had to deal with it much in real life since my family stopped speaking to me.
What really threw me is that the following day, I got two “Unable to Forward” notes from the same close geographical location of the woman I called —one from the same city.

However, I wasn’t about to make another telephone call, so I had Joe, my Associate Editor, do the honors. Theories began to form in my brain about how I had said something (or omitted something) to infuriate an entire jazz club, and they were boycotting me. I’m happy to say that was not the case.

Joe made the calls, and said that one guy still wanted his paper, and that he loved it. The other people hung up on him without saying “Hello,” which could mean anything. (They might have thought he was calling to tell them their Windows computer was out of order.) Both those subscribers are receiving this paper this month. Mrs. We-Don’t-Want-It, in accordance with her wishes, does not.

Which, though it is not very businesslike for me to say so, is okay with me.


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