My daughter flew down from Ann Arbor for Christmas and, in the course of a pleasant visit, came across my last Journal-World confession of telephone misdemeanors on both sides of the Atlantic. "You didn't write about the California timeshare call or the Metropolitan Opera one," she said. I hadn't realized she'd been logging my conversations with strangers during the years she was growing up. But her comment reminded me of the positive aspects of engaging strangers in creative telephone games.
Sometimes, if the mood is on me, I try to seduce telephone solicitors into long conversations. Now, I know people who set the receiver down shortly after the sales pitch begins and go off to do other things, leaving the caller praising his aluminum siding into a listenerless telephone. I think that's cruel.
I prefer an interactive response. If I have a long empty evening stretching ahead of me, I get them talking and answering my questions until they try to beg off because they have other calls to make.
Usually, you can take your cue from their opening remarks: "Hi, how're you doing?" "Fine, how about you? A lot of flu going around. Your family all right? Well, how many kids?" and so on. Or, they announce where they are: "I'm calling long-distance from Washington, D.C." Or, as the timeshare rep did, "I'm calling from Los Angeles. California." (They must figure we Midwesterners are geographically challenged or maybe that we're easily impressed.)
My record is the 13 minutes and 20 seconds I kept the California caller on the line. I took his opening L.A. serve and returned it invitingly to his forehand: "Oh, I've been reading about the weather out there. Have you been hit by the heavy rains? No? Where in L.A. do you live?" I'm having a good enough time that I'm about as genial a prospect as any cold-calling salesperson is ever likely to find. Thirteen minutes later, I've learned he's 29 years old, lives with his wife and two children, two boys, near Glendale, well, actually more towards Pasadena, used to work at the Burbank Kmart, and, no, he doesn't plan on spending his life calling people about condos and timesharing, speaking of which ... Unfortunately, I have to excuse myself to answer the door, but it's been awfully nice chatting with him.
My daughter generally disapproves of this rigmarole. The only one she didn't utterly deplore was my 11-minute discussion with the young woman trying to enlist donors for the Metropolitan Opera. After a minute or two, I had shifted the topic to New York -- the weather, of course, the crime rate, the mayor's reforms, her own job prospects and cultural interests. It turned out that Kelly wasn't committed wholly to opera, but rather was an undergraduate in art history. I told her I taught at the University of Kansas. We discussed "The Wizard of Oz" (inevitable) and tornados (also inevitable) before I started praising our art history department. "Really fine," I said. "Highly rated." Then I named some of my esteemed colleagues in art history. She was interested. NYU, it turned out, wasn't all that rewarding, and she was tired of the big city. I told her what a wonderful place Lawrence was.
When she really did have to get back to work, we left it with her promise that if she transferred, she'd drop by my office to say hello. "Wescoe Hall," I said. "Right on Jayhawk Boulevard."
Although my daughter approved my helpfulness, Kelly never showed. Maybe she just couldn't leave New York. Or maybe she did transfer to KU but did it while I was off overseas bedeviling the poor customers of British Telecom. It seems a pity to do so much for a person and not to know the final outcome, but that's how it is when you do your best work on the telephone.
-- Joel J. Gold is a professor of English at Kansas University. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Wayward Professor," is