UNKNOWN TO THEM, all of us on the call desk could tell when the bosses were listening in. Common signals included a split-second, sporadic choppiness or a Darth Vader-like echo, even for agents like Karen, who was known for hiking up her already high-pitched voice whenever she spoke to a male heterosexual caller.
‘It’s a strategy,’ she had told us during a cigarette break. ‘Sounding girly and helpless. Letting them think they have the power. Men like that. They let their guard down and shit. Then I sell them something they don’t need.’
We were graduates of marketing and sociology, biology and liberal arts, communications and philosophy. This wanton parade of impracticality. A lot of us were philosophy graduates.
But the feedback could get too loud sometimes, and distracting. ‘What was that?’ our bat-eared caller would bark, catching the echo. We were mandated by federal law to admit, at the slightest insinuation, that the call was indeed being recorded. When we did, the customer would sometimes go ballistic, say something like ‘I knew they were listening in on my calls!’ or lapse into rehearsed nostalgia: ‘It’s never been the same after September 11.’ Sigh.
The official rebuttal script was ‘This call is being monitored or recorded but only for quality assurance purposes.’ Our callers, bless them, would eventually shrug off this caveat as Standard Operating Procedure.
In our skyscraper, half a world away from Lower Manhattan, we would coolly step into a well-worn elevator, march into our stations and, with a bit of a psychosomatic yawn, put on our headsets then wait for the beep that would open the floodgates.
‘Thank you for calling US-Tel Consumer Services. My name is– ’
‘Hello?’ the American on the line would say, already outraged.
That night, Brock, the bearish operations manager from Austin, walked over to our spine – ‘Hello, guys!’ – and told us to gather around. Eric, our supervisor, was absent, he said, so he’d taken the liberty to evaluate our team for call flow compliance. Nothing special, you know, just a routine procedure.
Our ally at Quality Assurance hadn’t alerted us about any impromptu monitoring, or was that non-stop frenetic waving supposed to be the signal? In the first four hours of the shift, we had been doing that thing that you did when the cat is away. Karen had been caught Googling ‘edible+undies+Manila’ in the middle of a call. Philip, who sat next to her, was arguing with a bunch of tweens in an online forum for American Idol fans. Alvin, who was new and sat next to Philip, was browsing through half-naked torsos on a gay hook-up site. And down the line, Macky was playing a spirited game of chess with someone from Lahore. Brock shook his head, his mouth like a deformed rhombus – the way Filipino mothers showed reproach.
‘Good job, guys,’ quipped Mitch, overachieving occupant of the highly sought-after window cubicle. Mitch routinely followed the call flow to a T (the condescension optional). She would arrive at the office forty-five minutes before shift and get to work right away, unlike the rest of us. For Halloween, she would decorate her station with fake cobwebs and Styrofoam tombstones, and dress up like White Lady of Balate Drive. The rest of us would call in sick
then party somewhere else. Mitch cozied up to the Americans (or British, Canadians, Aussies) in the al fresco courtyard-cum-smoking area called the Lung Centre. The rest of us used the stairs to get to the 32nd floor, if only to avoid sharing an elevator with the white guys.
Anyway, Brock said, because of our infractions, they were installing Surf Control in all the computers. That, and we would all need to attend a Stress Management Workshop after shift.
‘But we’re not stressed– ’ Philip said.
‘Well it’s either that or suspension, so– ’ Brock said.
‘ –are we?’ Philip looked at us, mortified.
Brock looked at him. ‘If there are no other questions– ’
‘How long will it take?’ Karen asked.
‘Who will run it?’ Macky asked, taking a peek at the tiny chessboard on his monitor.
‘Is it safe to say,’ Alvin whispered to the few within earshot, ‘that we’re stressing over a Stress Management Workshop?’
‘I heard that,’ Brock pointed out.
‘Brock,’ Mitch cooed, ‘do I have to be there, or is it just the offenders?’
We glared at her, then looked at each other.
‘Yes, Mitch,’ Brock said, clearing his throat, returning to formality. ‘Okay? If there are no more questions…’ he drummed his index fingers on a grey plastic spine that separated the cubicles. The staccato that punctuated his sentence was also our signal to disperse.
WE DIDN’T KNOW how we got here. We were excitedly tossing our rolled-up diplomas into the air one moment, the next we were arranged in modular stations, sipping stale vending machine coffee and answering billing enquiries from Americans. Few of us certainly imagined it would be as dull and unchallenging as this, although we did like the arctic temperature, and the money. The money, especially. Some of us liked the graveyard schedule, too – stepping into the shower just as the chicken adobo for dinner had started to settle in our stomachs, leaving the house as the parade of primetime telenovelas began, and encountering the exhausted home-bound jeepneys and buses.
After Brock’s huddle, we went to get something to eat at a condemned high-rise in front of GT Tower a block away. The space used to be dark and closed off by rusty, vine--swathed GI sheets, before a group of enterprising individuals cleared the debris on the first floor and set up tables and chairs. Voila! Instant food market. It was a hit. The army of call centre employees along Ayala Avenue flocked to the stalls that sold everything from chargrilled quarter pounders to mutton and paneer masala – an unwitting hat tip to our competitors in the subcontinent.
‘Anyone see Jasmine’s performance last night?’ Philip asked, tearing a chapatti with one hand and scooping a hefty chunk of rubbery mutton.
‘Is she the Hawaiian with the stupid…thing?’ Karen asked, plucking an imaginary hibiscus petal from her right ear.
Philip’s mouth opened for a moment, then he shrugged. ‘Yep, that’s her.’
As vaguely racist company brochures and government puffery put it, we Filipinos were, unlike the Indians, ‘attuned to American culture’. So of course we followed American Idol. We’d all seen Jasmine’s god-awful performance. We looked at Philip to register the pointlessness of his question, and could he please leave us alone with our lunch, which, for a change, wasn’t from the Subway on the third or the McDonald’s across the street. Tonight it was Filipino fare – tapsilog for Alvin, sisig for Karen, and San Mig Light and Marlboros for Macky.
Philip took a furious drag at his cigarette, held his breath, coughed a little and then blew smoke that gingerly drifted to the open air. ‘Guys, guys,’ he said after a moment, indicating in the direction of a graffiti-covered wall, dimly lit by far-off spotlights.
Mitch, the unflawed Madonna in our section, looked to be buying something from an under-manned dessert stall, her neon ID lace bright amid the marbled smoke from the nearby barbecue grills. She dropped what appeared to be a slice of cake in a carton and erupted in giggles, hand darting to cover her mouth. She picked up the carton, handed it to the vendor, and giggled some more. In her amusement, she tilted her head and saw us, at which point she lifted a hand for a jolly wave.
We waved back, in varying degrees of languor.
‘Let’s go?’ someone suggested. We pushed our chairs back and picked ourselves up.
‘SHE WASN’T IN her element,’ Philip said, above the steady buzz of conversation at the Lung Centre, a veritable Pangaea where on-break agents amassed from all over the building. ‘Imagine having to do disco when you’re used to doing ballads and Whitney Houston. I mean, she probably has too much Pinoy blood in her. I wouldn’t be surprised.’
‘Somebody shut him up,’ Karen said, puffing smoke to her right.
We looked elsewhere.
‘Dibidi, dibidi?’ Macky said in his sheepish, mock-Indian accent – a horrible imitation of one of the many Indians peddling pirated DVDs in the shopping plazas, or weaving through public markets astride beat-up Suzukis.
In one corner of the Lung Centre, we saw Himmat smoking, his back turned away from the multi-coloured glare of bank logos. Himmat managed the airline reservation account next to ours. His patch of ceiling was crowded with Boeing 747s and Airbus A320s dangling piñata--like from strings.
US-Tel had centres in Bangalore, New Delhi and Ahmedabad, wherever that was. It wasn’t uncommon for us to get a call from someone who sounded unmistakably Indian introducing herself as ‘Chloe’. ‘How are you doing today?’ Chloe would ask, then explain that the customer she had on the line was routed to their site by mistake. Automatically we would imagine someone in a colourful sari, who resembled the gorgeous Sushmita Sen, only darker, less statuesque, so different from us and our mixed Chinese and Malay blood, our acid-washed Levis and fake Lacoste shirts, but who, like us, had read the same ring-bound Manual for US-Tel Customer Care Associates and memorised the same spiels.
‘I wonder what’s underneath the turban,’ Karen said dreamily.
‘I have a wild guess,’ Alvin said. ‘Hair.’
Himmat flung his cigarette butt onto a nearby bin and made his way back towards the building. We took it as our cue to wrap up our own post-meal cigarettes, and we followed him across the lobby to the elevator landing.
‘Fuck,’ Philip said, looking at his phone. ‘Dial Idol says she’s going home. I don’t understand. We always win these texting contests.’
Thirty-second – our floor – was already pressed and lit when a leather shoe stopped the elevator doors from closing.
‘You need a US phone line to vote,’ Karen said. ‘So our loyal armies of bored housewives and tambays can’t– ’
‘What needs a US phone line?’ Brock asked, wedging his torso between the mishmash of bodies. His question hung in the air as the car started its ascent. We wondered if the elevator’s sluggishness was only in our imagination.
When we got to our floor, Philip pulled us to one side.
‘Listen,’ Philip whispered. ‘I just remembered something.’ A long time ago, he said, he had discovered a way to log off from the system without being detected. After a call, instead of hitting Next, he pressed the plunger of the physical phone and got a dial tone.
‘What are you suggesting?’ Alvin asked.
‘Well, there’s five of us and four more hours left in our shift…’ Philip said.
We disengaged from the mutinous huddle and started walking back to our stations.
‘Hey,’ Philip called out, trying to keep up, ‘Don’t you want to see a Pinoy in the finals of American Idol?’
We kept walking.
‘Beer on me later?’
Back at our stations, prompted by family photos we had decorated our bays with, some of us remembered the younger brother in college, the overdue life insurance premium, the number of days before Christmas (forty-three).
‘Log in now, guys,’ Brock called out from his temporary station near our spine. ‘Start logging in…’
That was our cue to steel ourselves, not so much for the irate caller that dependably lurked in the queue – we could always handle that – but for the simple truth that anything short of the devil calling in to enquire about our long-distance rates was probably not enough to make us quit.
Speaking of the devil, we watched Mitch reposition her mic and massage her neck, talking in the same firm voice that neither shook nor cracked even when her caller shouted and called her names. Every now and then, she nodded gravely, as if the person from across the Pacific could see her dogged earnestness.
Four hours later, at 8 am sharp – 5 pm in California – Brock walked over to the middle of the floor and, with a couple of claps, called out, ‘Last call, everyone! Last call!’ Sporadic applause broke out from random areas, some utterances of joy and relief. He then walked over to our spine. ‘As for you guys,’ he said, ‘please head over to Training Room B, thanks.’
‘IF THIS WERE Survivor,’ Philip said as we made our way to the training room across the floor, ‘we could just vote Mitch off the island.’ His voice then hiked to a falsetto. ‘Do I have to be there, Brock?’
When Brock walked in a few minutes later, we were confused, then worried. If the company couldn’t afford a trainer, moving its business back to Naperville couldn’t be far behind, could it? We hated our jobs, sure, but a pullout was not the way to go. Pullouts were scary.
We straightened up in our hard plastic seats.
‘You’re doing the workshop, Brock?’ Mitch asked.
‘Uh huh,’ Brock said. He clicked on the mouse once, twice, but the first slide of his presentation remained frozen. His index finger went amuck on the helpless mouse, then he smashed the mouse repeatedly against the desk.
‘So, stress,’ Brock began, ‘sometimes we become so used to it–’
‘Should we call IT?’ Philip asked.
‘Nope,’ Brock said. ‘I can handle this.’ He looked at his laptop, mumbling something. The computer caught up moments later and moved to the next slide. ‘There you go,’ he said with a sigh. ‘We start off with…’
Onscreen were the letters P-E-R-A. Money.
We chuckled. When else were we less stressed than on the two days a month when, in the wee hours of the morning, raucous cheering erupted from some corner of the floor, bearing news that our above-minimum wage pay had been credited to our payroll accounts?
Brock went on. ‘P is for “Prepare”. For example, your attitude… ’
An hour or so later, when Brock had gotten to ‘A’ for ‘Adjust’, Alvin felt a tap on his shoulder. Mitch, who sat next to him, lowered her head and leaned closer. She showed him the supple underside of her arm, skin so pale the veins protruded like fossilised worms. ‘Can you?’ she whispered. ‘I’m not going to make it.’
The white in Mitch’s eyes, Alvin saw, was red and watery.
‘Again?’ he asked. ‘You sure?’
Alvin ran a hand down her arm, squeezing gently here and there, until he picked a spot somewhere in the middle and, with a nervous force, pinched an inch of skin.
Mitch closed her eyes. ‘Thank you.’ She smiled. ‘Now harder. And use your nails.’
By the time Brock finished the last of the slides, everyone in the room was yawning.
‘Any questions?’ he asked.
We shook our heads and made a show of checking the identical monochromatic wall clocks on the right side of the room. The clocks announced the time in four different time zones, none of them Manila’s, although Eastern Standard Time, twelve hours away, incidentally did.
Mitch raised her hand. ‘I’ve been under a lot of stress lately–’
Philip dropped his empty tumbler on the floor, making a loud thud.
‘–and I’m starting to get used to it. Maybe that’s good?’
After a long pause, Brock ventured into something indecipherably long-winded. ‘My generation of Americans, we were raised in a home environment that really nurtured our hopes and dreams, you know? We baby boomers; we were a very promising generation. Very promising. Our parents have been through the worst. The Great Depression. World War II. So for us, growing up, we had these role models to look up to. People who showed us the triumph of the human spirit, who seized their destiny, forsaking material comfort.’
Our open mouths must have betrayed the debilitating headache that Brock’s speech had just hatched in our already heavy heads. Even Mitch, who we surmised could fake smile through any brutal non sequitur, was speechless.
‘If there are no more questions…’ Brock drummed his index fingers on his desk, and we were on our feet faster than one could say ‘Pavlov’s dog.’
THE FOLLOWING WEEK – Jasmine safely through to the final three, thanks or no thanks to us – we were eating fries at McDonald’s for lunch when Mitch came prancing in. She looked around the store and, spotting us, headed to our table.
‘Guys,’ she said, looking outside the glass wall. ‘Sorry, but can I borrow a hundred?’
‘You’re late,’ Karen said, not so much out of rudeness but disbelief.
‘I know,’ Mitch sighed. ‘Overslept. Is Brock in?’
‘Shit,’ she muttered.
Philip handed her a crisp hundred-peso bill. She scampered to the waiting cab outside, waved to us again, then crossed the street to our building, no doubt bulldozing her way through the crowded lobby.
‘That was weird,’ Philip said.
‘Yeah,’ Karen said. ‘You don’t even like her.’
‘No,’ Philip said, ‘I mean…’
‘The driver didn’t have change?’ Alvin offered.
‘Otherwise, why would you take a cab if you don’t have any money?’ Macky asked.
For the rest of us, McDonald’s was a benevolent refuge, especially during pecha de peligro, the few days leading up to payday. Walking back to our building, we were distracted by a soft whirr from somewhere. We looked up and saw, framed by our skyscraper and the one across the street, the wing lights of a low-flying plane, a blink in the night sky.
Back at the floor, we spotted Himmat under the forest of unmoving jumbo jets by his bay, talking to people in suits, mostly white guys, including Brock.
Mitch sidled up to us. ‘Did you hear?’
‘What?’ we chorused.
‘Guard ran the hand-held metal detector by his turban,’ Mitch said.
‘Fuck,’ Macky whispered, stifling a laugh.
‘Mitch,’ Philip turned to her, ‘everything okay with you?’
‘What do you mean?’ Mitch asked.
‘Is it something personal?’ Karen asked.
‘Not sure what you guys are talking about.’
Alvin ran a hand up and down her back.
‘You can’t let that ruin your focus,’ Philip said. ‘You’re the best performer in the team. Your output’s equivalent to, what, five, six agents combined? That’s half the team. What will we do without you?’
When we saw Brock leave the group, we quickly dispersed.
‘Start logging in now, guys,’ he called out, passing by our spine. ‘It’s 3.59. Log in now, people. We have a queue.’
Mitch, when we turned to look at her, was already in her station, already taking calls while tinkering with the assortment of bric-a-bracs lined up around her computer – a framed Polaroid of a man in a hammock by the beach, a couple of Agent of the Year trophies, and an antique-looking desk clock from a long-ago trip to Paris. She was already talking in the modulated lilts that all of us, at one point, had secretly tried to eavesdrop on, mildly envious.
We took our seats and cleared our throats, took a sip of water. In the final few moments before logging in, the operations floor would always descend into absolute silence.
‘Thank you for calling US-Tel Consumer Services. My name is…’
Brock had started to walk back to his office when we saw someone approach him with a sheet of paper. He took a look and at once closed his eyes, as if in deep pain. He gave the guy, one of the more senior supervisors, a pat on the back of the head.
‘Guys,’ Brock said to the auditorium filled with cold and sleepy agents, ‘do you think what we do here is some kind of a joke?’
‘Be specific,’ Karen whispered.
‘You think what we do here is funny?’ Brock asked.
‘Well…’ Karen slurred.
A few days before, we had received a directive from Naperville telling us to remind switching customers that ‘only US-Tel phone lines stayed up in New York on the morning of September 11’. A rival carrier, utilising a new technology, had brought down their rates to rock-bottom levels, and since US-Tel couldn’t compete with their prices, its resort was the ‘Appeal to Patriotism’. The response from our callers, in the few hesitant times that we used this suggested rebuttal, was cold-blooded amusement. Sometimes they would laugh so hard that we had little choice but to join them, a camaraderie so touching and unexpected that they did end up staying with US-Tel.
Brock paced back and forth in front of the hastily called account-wide assembly. There were murmurs, errant yawns and, from a remote corner, someone’s ringtone – the Elton John song that Jasmine had sung weeks ago on Idol – turned heads.
Brock stood absolutely still. His right hand, we noticed, was balled into a fist. A few moments passed, and he checked his watch. He cleared his throat.
‘Now,’ Brock began, taking out a piece of paper, the same one handed to him earlier. He said he was just informed that around a third of the calls from our phones last week were made to a 1-800 number that a quick Google search revealed was the hotline to American Idol. ‘I’m not sure why we didn’t find out sooner. I had to hear it from Tim Miller. Tim fucking Miller.’
Some of us thought, ‘Who?’ The rest of us looked at each other.
Brock smiled the frigid, hollow smile only people in absolute torment wore. He then recited, in an overly formal tone, ‘the damage’. Abandoned calls, 291. Customer Satisfaction, 66 per cent. Billable hours, 42 per cent below target, meaning the company lost nearly half its income for this account last week.
Did we derive, he asked, some sick pleasure from thinking that we were somehow able to out-smart the company, the company that for years provided us with gainful employment denied to so many others. ‘What were you guys thinking? Really, I’m stumped over here.’
We expected Mitch to raise her hand, say something consoling in our defence, something apologetic and maudlin, with elements of nationalism and Catholic fervour thrown in. But when we looked at her, she seemed a little constipated and tense, although Alvin would claim, in a future assessment of the events of that day, that there was the tiniest hint of a smile in one corner of her pursed lips.
‘Unfortunately,’ Brock went on, ‘it’s logistically impossible to find out who made that very first call.’ And suspending all agents who partook in the ‘little operation’ would paralyse the Manila site. So he was going to wait until someone came clean, and, until then, lunch would be cut down from one hour to thirty minutes. ‘We’ve been too lax with you guys. We’re seeing that now.’
‘You know what the worst part is?’ Brock asked after another long pause. ‘Jasmine’s not even Filipino. Not really.’
In the sluggish march to exit the conference hall, we saw Mitch make her way to Brock. They had a brief chat – Brock occasionally nodding – before they walked to his glass-encased office.
‘His hands were shaking, did you see it?’ Karen said at the Lung Centre, which always looked different, surprising in daylight, as if from a mystical place it suddenly became real. She took a long drag at her cigarette.
‘I got it,’ Philip said, blinking rapidly. ‘We don’t go to work tomorrow. We show them that US-Tel needs us more than we need it.’
‘Right, right,’ Sharon said.
Alvin looked at us.
Mitch appeared from out of nowhere. ‘Hi, guys.’ Smiling, she handed Philip a hundred-peso bill. ‘Thanks again. Don’t try to get my phone.’ She giggled.
‘Sure,’ Philip said, looking uncertain.
‘You know, to be honest?’ Mitch said. ‘I did vote for Jasmine once or twice last week. Maybe more. My fingers are super-fast, you guys know that.’
THE LAST TWO hours of the shift, typically, are a dead time. Supervisors start to clear their desks. Quality Assurance people are done with their audits. The maintenance kuyas have started to empty the waste bins in their assigned rows. Agents, with few calls trickling in, chat with their seatmates over dividers, their cursors hovering over the logout buttons on their onscreen phones. But when we came back, the operations floor was as alive, as noisy as it had been at midnight when call traffic is at its peak.
‘So I had this customer who wanted to disconnect his line,’ Mitch said, parking herself next to our stations.
‘We need to log in now, Mitch,’ Philip said.
‘So I told him the usual things, right?’ she said. She went through the list of available rebuttals with practised ease – quality of service, value for money, the prestige of having a US-Tel line, even that stupid thing about September 11. When it started to seem hopeless, she offered to move the customer to a lower-priced plan. ‘He freaked out,’ she said. ‘He started cursing and calling me names, asked me how much I made in a year, then finally demanded to speak to an American.’
Mitch went on. ‘So I dialled Brock’s extension and put him on, but he didn’t know the customer was already on the line and he must have recognised my extension because when he picked up, he shouted, “What? What do you want now?”’
‘What? Why was he mad at you?’ Philip asked.
‘Anyway,’ Mitch said, ‘the customer, who turned out to be the owner of a chain of international fitness centres, went nuts. He was already mad when I turned him over, then to hear Brock go off like that…’
‘Where am I calling?’ the customer had shouted.
‘US-Tel offices are based in Naperville, Mr Giuseppe,’ Brock lied.
‘Baloney!’ the customer said.
‘Hilarious!’ Mitch cried. ‘When the call was over, I told Brock I was quitting. He said something about a two weeks’ notice and a potential suit. I told him I had a draft of an email to Tim Miller about the many times his arm “accidentally” brushed against my breasts.’
Mitch’s desk, we noticed for the first time, had been cleared of all her trinkets. She smiled, gave Alvin’s arm a light squeeze before marching away.
Somehow we’d always find ourselves surprised by the first light, the glacial, unobserved shift of sky from black to leaden to deep blue, the sun nowhere but also everywhere on this side of the tilting ground. Soon, colours: on the skyscrapers, the horizon of sharp-cornered silhouettes, the solitary aircraft on its final tentative descent.
‘Guys,’ whispered Brock, suddenly behind us.
We turned to look at him.
‘Log in now. C’mon. You’re already seven minutes over-break.’ A couple of claps. Quick, playful drumbeats on a vacant desk.
We put on our headsets and waited for the beep. When it came, our memorised spiels rushed out of us. On cue, we thanked our callers for calling us, introduced ourselves with made-up names and conveyed a most ardent desire to help them, in all the ways we could, and more. The call done, we awaited the next.