The mechanized systems all corporations began using toward the end of my father’s life drove him insane. Within a minute his face would take on a Clint Eastwood cast, jaw set, eyes narrowed malevolently, ready to snarl and kill. Mechanized receptionists are aggravating to most people who find themselves at their mercy, but they especially aggravated him.
His favorite moment from Sanford and Son, which he recounted more than once over the years, was an exasperated Fred Sanford, played by the great Red Foxx, speaking into his phone after a long spell on hold. “Is this a human or a machine?…. well, I’m a human too.” He’d recall the moment with a fond laugh, a story of a quaint time when humans still picked up the phone to help other humans solve their problems. My father longed for those quaint times whenever a robotic voice told him how important his business was to them. Few things got him into a rage quicker than the upbeat hold button robots corporations began to use to save money.
“Please listen to all options before making your selection since our menu options have changed to serve you better. We listened to you and made this system even better, to serve you better! To repeat this entire message at any time, including this part, please press 9 at any time. Press one to be placed on hold while being told your business is important to us; press two to be placed on hold while being told, candidly, that you a powerless, fungible widget considered only as part of our profit calculus, someone we are free to treat with mechanized disdain; press three to be politely told to go fuck yourself, for detailed instructions on going to fuck yourself, please press four….”
I wrote the bulk of this while on hold with the New York State of Health Official Health Plan Marketplace, trying to keep my blood pressure under control. Today’s call, only one hour and ten minutes (less than half of that time on hold one of the seven or eight times I was placed on hold) may well have solved the relatively unambiguous and well-documented problem I have spent less than eight or nine hours so far trying to solve. That is my hope, anyway.
“Thank you for your patience, Eliot,” the last helpful one said after placing me on a brief hold for a fourth time.
“You were lovely, Gloria,” I told the young bureaucrat toward the end of the call, after snarling at her at one point, only about 40 minutes in, in spite of myself. Then I briefly described the broken system, designed to insure uninterrupted profits for the insurance industry under a law written by a health industry executive, Liz Fowler, on brief loan to the government. That there is no process for solving patient problems like mine is no accident, that process would be overwhelmed by thousands of consumer complaints to a system not designed to consider them, since there is no profit in that to anyone. She admitted to me by the end of the call that she too had been screwed by this imperfect system, designed not primarily to protect patients but the corporate bottom line. We got off the phone the best of friends.
My father was rarely able to accomplish this highly skilled result. It was a constant frustration of his, the cheerful fuck-yourself-in-the-face triumph of bottom-line corporate cocksuckers, always taken at the expense of humans like him and Fred Sanford.