"Thank you for calling Vector."

I'm still not hating my new job, answering the ride line for Seattle's disabled transit system. It's starting to feel like the job I was hoping to find — actually helping people, instead of simply pushing papers in yet another office. 

Our riders have to be pre-screened, certified as so seriously disabled they're not able to use the county's regular public transit system. Once they're certified, riders can call up to a week in advance, to tell us — to tell me — where they're going, what time they'd like to be picked up, what time they'll be ready for their return trip, etc.

We book thousands of bus rides every day, on several hundred Vector short buses. There are about a dozen of us in the call center, and amazingly, there aren't any of my co-workers that I hate yet. Then again, I'm new.

My training took two weeks, and was largely wasted time. Too many videos, lectures, and dumb quizzes. To learn the job, you gotta do the job.

They had me take calls with experienced operators sitting beside me and listening in, but only for half a day, three times, for a total of a day and a half. Which wasn't enough. 

For the last week, though, I've been on my own, and it's wild.

Every time the phone rings, you never know. Will it be a normal call, or something wacky? I ask the scripted questions, input the callers' answers, and book their rides, but every single rider on the system is disabled in one way or another, and some have problems talking clearly, and some barely speak English, or don't. If it's barely, I ask them to spell their names, and the answer to every question needs to be read back slowly for confirmation. If they don't speak English, I connect to the "language line," and ask my questions through an interpreter. And many or most of our callers are isolated and lonely, and want to talk about their swollen ankles or arthritis or son-in-law. But there are 20 more calls queued up, so I can't listen to all their non-bus-related complaints.

Our buses take riders to their doctor's appointments, or to the movies or church, but asking for a 3PM pickup doesn't mean you get a 3PM pickup; you might have to wait twenty minutes or half an hour.

Most callers are pleasant, understanding and appreciative. It is, seriously, a marvelous service we provide, but a few callers are difficult.

"It's a fifteen minute drive from Southcenter to Renton, so why does the bus take so much longer?"

Because it's public transit, not a taxi. You wait for the bus; the bus doesn't wait for you. And the route might not be direct. And the bus will be stopping to pick up and drop off other passengers along the way.

Some callers don't like the pick-up or drop-off times I've booked for them, or they want to book a ride that's logistically impossible, so I transfer them to the customer service queue, where another operator will tell them what I've already told them.

In just a week answering calls, I've been hung up on twenty times, gotten complaints about yesterday's ride, and fielded a hundred "Where's my bus?" calls when that day's bus was running late. Callers give me an address they want a ride to and tell me it's Denny's, but the software says it's Burger King, so I gotta play Google-detective.

Usually it's one call after another, all happening so quickly there's no time to be bored, and the time goes very quickly. It's exhilarating. I'm wired all day, even without coffee in my veins. Come 5PM the phones are clicked off, but we stay until all the callers in the queue have been helped, and when the last call has been answered and ended, I'm still high on adrenaline all the way home.

All day every day, it's — what's the next craziness? 

On Tuesday, there was a call in Spanish, so I patched it through to an interpreter, but knew something was wrong when my first question — "May I have your name please?" got an answer that lasted three minutes and sounded terrified. Turns out the caller was riding one of our buses, and thought her driver was weaving between lanes and nodding off. Probably she was exaggerating, but I patched her through to someone who could sooth her nerves better than me.

On Friday, we got word that a frequent rider, well known and liked by everyone in the call center, had died on the bus. The driver took her to her destination, parked the bus, lowered the wheelchair ramp, and said, "Are you ready, Mrs Domingo?" but there was no reply.

"Rest in peace, Mrs Domingo," was the comment from several of my co-workers, and it seemed sincere. A lot of our riders are in less than the best health, and about half the trips I book are to and from medical clinics, so death will presumably be a frequent player.

And then there's Mr Angel, who sadly seems to be in good health. I can only wonder what his disability is, but my guess is Tourette syndrome or something similar. He doesn't use obscenities, but he's rude, brusque, demanding, and never stops talking. Soon as I said, "Thank you for calling Vector," he started rambling, with a speech impediment and a derogatory tone of voice, and always impatient. To ask the eleven questions I'm supposed to ask, I had to interrupt him eleven times. His trail of thought wanders through all of time and space, history and science, and he told me about honoring the sabbath, and the price of prunes, and the slipperiness of linoleum, on and on without ever a pause, and with surliness when I couldn't quickly enough pull the info that's pertinent and necessary out of his verbal stew.

All through the conversation, Mr Angel clearly wanted to be insulting, and he was, but it was so over-the-top, so exaggerated and ridiculous, it was more entertaining than aggravating.

Most calls take three or four minutes; my call from Mr Angel took 19 minutes. It was a week ago, so Jem was still sitting beside me, listening in, and afterward she said I'd been baptized by fire — he's infamous as our most difficult caller — but that I'd handled him pretty well.

Other than the existence of Mr Angel, my only complaint about the job, so far anyway, is that it's sink-or-swim for a rookie like me.

Jem isn't sitting beside me any more, listening in. It's just me and the caller, and then the next caller, and then the next. We have 'lead' call-takers, of course — people who can answer my questions as they come up. But the 'leads' are taking calls themselves, so when the software announces an error message that makes no sense, I can't tap a 'lead' on the shoulder. All I can do is send them a text message.

And then I can't take the next call, because we each only have one line, so the caller goes on hold, and I sit in my chair and look at the ceiling and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait until my 'leads' are off their calls.

Sometimes the answers come slowly, even after the leads' calls have ended. Sometimes they get distracted, and don't see my texts. Sometimes they simply don't answer, because they want me to figure it out for myself. And sometimes I do.

On Thursday morning, a caller asked a question I had no answer for, just as we all received a text telling us the 'leads' would be in a meeting with the boss for the next 45 minutes.

Guess I could've told the caller I'd ring him back later, but instead I plowed through the documentation and procedure books the company has given me, scratched my head and patched together an answer I'm almost sure was right.



  1. What a beautiful three run triple. Writing so descriptive I found myself reading faster and faster, and I kept thinking, "There's no way in hell I could do that job." Man, I'd develop a case of the nervous Nellies by 8:30. I am filled with goodwill, so take this is a compliment: Kinky Friedman always says, "Find something you love and let it kill you." I don't think death is an essential outcome of this job, but you're going to do great.

    A three run triple is the most exiting play in baseball, because everybody is moving at once and there aren't enough players to cover all the bases and relays, and you gave us a terrific play-by-play. Thanks.


    1. Huh. Really? I've said it before, but I honestly can't tell what's worth reading from what just needs to get out of my head. Thought this was the latter, so thanks.

    2. Yeah, I think that's what's called being a professional writer, whether you are poorly paid or make even less. OK, not everything you write is as good as this piece, but much of it is. And what the hell. The real arts money is in ballet.


    3. I've always wanted one of those poofy ballet skirts with matching leggings, but do they even make them in my megasize?

  2. What a breathless piece of writing! Where's my oxygen tank when I need it?

    - Zeke K-Holmes

  3. Egads, that's my fictional name in my Brindlekin Tales. I typed "Zeke K-Holmes" by habit, instead of "Zeke Krahlin." Sorry for the mixup.

    1. Cover blown!
      I have sometimes accidentally used real names when describing people I know — Dean, co-workers, ex-girlfriends, my brothers, etc — but usually I catch it while editing. Never yet accidentally outed myself, though. Yikes!


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