As jobs went, the call center wasn’t a bad place to work. God knows, Callie thought, it was a thousand times better than most jobs she had worked, better than flipping burgers, or cleaning up poopy diapers at the nursing home, better than picking cotton when she was a kid.
It was pretty good, really, close enough to the women’s shelter so Callie could walk, Safe, far far away from the old ghost of the Confederacy that never did die even after a hundred and fifty years.
Callie strode now with a determined pace almost like a soldier, as she walked into the call center, repeating her mantra, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” It was what her grandmother always said in times of stress. Regardless of the fact that Callie didn’t know exactly what this statement meant, it calmed her nerves and helped her heart stop pounding. “Lord I hope Brooks is not on duty today,” Callie said out loud; but there he was standing proudly at the check-in desk, pen in hand, clipboard held high.
“How’s it goin, Callie?”
“Fine, Brooks, Just fine.”
“Well that’s good to know.”
Brooks talked with some sort of clipped discord. Callie thought he might be a foreigner, for she knew lots of foreigners lived up North. There sure weren’t many down where she came from, just white people and lots of blacks. Mexicans had began to come in, to work on the sweet potato farms, and to take the low wage factory jobs that the whites and blacks thought they were too good for. Grandma always said of foreigners, “not our kind of people.” Callie knew folks didn’t talk that way now; of course they still believed that way, they just didn’t say it out loud.
“ Now, focus today,” Brooks was saying, remember, read the script verbatim, don’t throw in those uh huh’s and ok’s. This is a professional place, Goddammit.”
“Yes sir,” Callie said with a heavy emphasis on the sir. You had to humor people like Brooks.
The first few calls were not that bad, mostly hang ups. One man told Callie to go screw herself, and an uppity woman said that she was planning to call Federal Regulations and report the call center. Several people called Callie a crazy bitch, but what they didn’t know was that she had been called much worse, mostly by her husbands. Callie knew that most of humanity was pretty bad, so she wasn’t too bothered.
About mid afternoon Brooks came over to Callie’s station to instruct her on her calls.
“Goddammit Callie if you don’t work on your enunciation I’m going to send your Southern ass home. Those people can’t tell what your saying when you drawl like that. I swear to God I don’t know why I hired you.”
Callie acted contrite, but secretly she dammed Brooks to hell. Her grandfather was a Baptist preacher and he knew how to elocute with the best; she could speak correctly when she had to. Some of the people she was interviewing could hardly speak. What the heck.
As the evening drifted on, the calls got harder. The Latina women were the hardest. Gentle, humble, polite to a fault, haltingly they struggled to complete the surveys. Callie wanted to say to them.” It’s ok that you’re here, hon, I don’t care if you all cross the border; I know how hard it is to try to feed your kids.” But instead she read verbatim – So would you say that it is: probably, definitely, or do you agree or disagree?
A little after seven a really nice man tried to flirt with Callie.
“Girl, I love your accent, I’m going to call you Texas. Is that where you’re from, Texas?” Callie wanted to soften her voice and flutter, “why aren’t you sweet?” but she kept on script and very professionally said, “we are not allowed to give out that information, sir.”
A homeless man tried to tell Callie his troubles. He couldn’t complete the survey, he was just about out of minutes on his phone. He knew he had a drinking problem, but if he could just get off the streets, he could change, he knew he could. Callie inhaled and shook her head, wishing he would go to the Methodist Church, because they always helped people back home. Beginning to feel weak, Callie looked at the clock hanging above the microwave. Only two more hours. “You gotta do what you gotta do, girl,” she told herself.
Her voice had begun to weaken, and she thought she sounded like an orphaned lamb. She willed herself to speak slowly and clearly and tried to focus on the gentle southern voice on the phone. “Ma’am?” The lady was questioning her. Unmistakably kind, a voice belonging to a black woman, a woman like so many Callie had known and loved back home, the woman was speaking in a slow gentle tone,
“I don’t have no education, Ma’am. I don’t know nothin’ about the stuff you’re asking me, I didn’t even get to the eighth grade.” Callie found herself gripping the edge of the desk. She flung back her head and breathed in the sweet oxygen of relief as her words came out in a burst of passion.
“It’s ok, sugar. Don’t you worry about finishing this survey, and don’t apologize about your education. I didn’t finish high school myself, but I got my GED. You could do that, too. It’s not hard. I can tell you’re real smart…..”
Brooks was getting out of his chair, throwing off his headphones, heading her way. Callie ripped off her badge and ran out the door, shouting as she ran “It”s not right, withholding the milk of human kindness from poor people. It’s all we got to give.”
She looked up at the darkening sky, feeling too hot to breathe. Brooks stood frozen, transfixed at the door of the center, holding up his hands in a sign of surrender. Without looking back, Callie started down the street toward the middle of the city,where she could at last take sad communion with the halt, and the lame, and the blind.