Saturday, September 09, 2006
Some of my colleagues prefer answering the phones to the face to face interaction of the reference desk. Each has its pros and cons and inherent risks. At the desk, you can pick up all of the non verbal cues of the patron, so it’s easier to read and connect with people. On the desk you get to witness and interact with humanity in all of its resplendent and degraded and fascinating forms, from the criminally insane to wizened scholars to sweet children and elegant society matrons. Of course you’re physically more vulnerable on the desk, not to mention subjected to revolting smells beyond my power of description. Often it can be hard to shake a patron, like one off his meds on a manic upswing talking jag, or a nasty borderline who will turn you in her mind from her best friend to her worst enemy in a matter of seconds, or unreasonable yuppie moms who are under the mistaken impression that screaming at a civil servant will get them their way, or mentally unstable malcontents who desire a captive audience for their soapbox issue.
Angry bicycle messenger guy: “Do you know what the rich people would do if we took away all of their money?”
“Is this a reference question?”
Not listening, “They would die, of course! They would completely fall apart! This society hates the poor, and I should know! Rich people couldn’t survive if you took away all of their money and power - ”
“I’m sorry, Sir. There’s a line of people. Unless you have a specific question that I can help you answer?”
“Oh – O.K. But think about it! I’ll be back later.”
Obviously no one else in their life will listen to their tired old rant, but they still want and need to be heard, so we get the pleasure at the desk. In most cases, if you just smile and nod while they finish out their script they will wander away. My particular weakness at the desk is for lonely old men, men who obviously live alone and have stopped looking at themselves in the mirror. They don't have anyone to tell them that their fly is open, that their socks don't match, or they cut themselves shaving. Some of them smell as musty as an old cellar. For the most part they’re heartbreakingly kind and courteous, though, and so sweet and desperate for human contact, I have a hard time disengaging and keeping a professional distance and sending them on their way.
Although the phones can be interesting, misunderstandings arise more easily from its communication limitations. People also can have appalling phone manners, and chew food and smack gum and squabble with their children or spouses in my ear. Often they won’t even bother to turn down a blaring television. One regular who is running a small business from his home is a notorious multitasker who never extends you the courtesy of his undivided attention. You can hear him rummaging through papers, or taking calls on his other line, which he’ll then confuse the line on which he has the librarian. He also has all of these maddening habits like playing with the spit in his mouth, and once the librarian could hear the unmistakable sound of him urinating and flushing the toilet. My colleague was outraged. “Call me back when you’re not otherwise engaged!” The librarian slammed the phone down.
Some calls are vaguely obscene, and people who don’t know that we have caller ID are emboldened by the perceived anonymity to be ruder than they would dare to be to your face. But, you can always hang up on a person, while it’s a little more challenging to shake them at the reference desk. My overly active imagination always creates scenarios for the people on the other end of the phone line, like for the mellifluent African American man who calls to order various jazz CDs. He always has some cool jazz playing like Miles Davis or John Coltraine in the background, so I imagine him in a turtleneck swirling a glass of cognac in front of a fire place. Other times my imagination has a more morbid bent, and the scenarios I imagine are much darker.
A woman called whose voice sounded strangled by fat. She told me she had lost track of her children but she needed to find addresses for them. Through labored breathing she said, “Wait, I can get you their social security numbers, if that helps. I had to get their numbers all at once when I got them on the welfare.” I could hear rustling and she began to grunt with exertion. “Uggh... Wait a minute – I have this device, this gripper, you know? I think their cards are in one of these piles next to the bed. I’m going…to try…to reach them. Mmmmmhhh…Uggghh…Mmmmmmg.” I could hear rustling and things falling over. After a while she panted into the phone., “Got ‘em.” I could just see her, this morbidly obese woman trapped on a bed, the television blaring, papers and objects surrounding her in filthy piles.
My favorite call was handled by a colleague. A man with a deep voice asked where he was in line for the latest Harry Potter book.
“Sir, you are 75th in line.”
Unable to contain his excitement, he shouted off the phone, “Mommy! Guess what? I’m 75th in line!”
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