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Miss Menu is Driven

Lately, when Miss Ellie is away and I get lonely, I call and talk to Julie. It’s okay with Ellie. She told me about Julie.

Julie has a bright, perky voice. She’s doesn’t flirt–she’s sexless, like Doris Day or Betty Crocker–but I keep hoping she’ll warm up to me. She seems to like it when I talk back to her.

Julie is the interactive, recorded spokesperson for Amtrak’s automated telephone answering service. Remember when you used to be able to phone a big company and talk to a human being? Well, there are still human voices hidden behind those phone menus, and usually I can reach one, if I persevere.

There seems to be a new generation of voices that ask you to make choices until you finally arrive, God willing, at your telephone destination. Robotic voices are inviting me to carry on a two-way conversation–to interrupt them rudely, and to argue with them when they get things wrong. They seem to be saying, “Abuse me. It’s all right.” It makes telephone menus more interesting, if no less maddening.

I’m sure many of our readers resent talking to “menus” rather than to real people. Personally, I resent the theft of the term “menu.” The word, which comes from the Spanish word “menudo,” used to refer to a list of food choices.

Choosing food is one of our favorite occupations here at the Wickenburg Institute For Factual Diversity. Trying to do something by telephone is not. I keep running into inappropriate choices: “If you need tecnhical assistance, press One. If you want to discuss your bill, press Two. If you want to buy Baltic Avenue, press Three…” There’s no menu item that says, “If you’re fed up and want to cancel our service, press Four.”

I recently upgraded our cell phone service from PQLYAR Wireless (high-tech companies use creative spelling). The saleswoman said to phone her if I had a problem.

I had a problem. I called, and entered into a magical maze of menus and mirrors which kept leading me back to the main menu, and pointing me toward the door. I never did talk to a live person, and I still don’t know how to use the voice mail on our cell phones.

Julie hasn’t done that to me yet, but she has certain things in common with other menu voices. She wants to know if I want to converse in English, or in Spanish. (This is no guarantee that if you reach a live person, that person will speak your language. Last week I actually reached live people at AOL and Compaq–they seemed to be from India and the Caribbean, respectively– whom I couldn’t understand at all.)

The other thing Julie invites me to do is to try Amtrak’s website, so I don’t take up so much of her valuable time. Bull dandruff. I’m worse at getting things done on websites than I am at dealing with telephone menus.

I’ve heard Miss Ellie answering the questions asked by these automatons, and she talks in a subdued voice, as though she’s embarrassed to have me hear her talking to a recording. I understand.

I first met one of these Digital Barbies two years ago when I needed to have Sears fix a broken refrigerator at my former Phoenix home. When I called for help, I found myself talking to helpful people in Provo, Utah. But when the repairman didn’t show up, and I tried to call them back, I reached a bright, female voice which said, “If you are calling to learn when a service person will arrive, say ‘Yes.’ ”

“Yes,” I said, feeling like an idiot.

“He is scheduled to arrive at 2:15 p.m.” Later, “He is scheduled to arrive at 3:15 p.m.” “…4:45 p.m.”

He didn’t show up until the following day. To whom could I complain, I asked him. Not him, he said. He was running behind schedule.

Julie is persistent. She makes me back up and repeat myself until we get it right. This morning I asked her about the arrival times of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited into the whistle stop of Maricopa, Arizona.

She didn’t understand at first. She asked if I meant Manchester, New York. No. Like a determined dance teacher, Julie said we should back up a couple of steps and try again.

Frederick, Maryland, she asked? No, there’s a sniper loose around there. She finally figured out that I was talking about Maricopa, but couldn’t pronounce it. She spelled it out: ” M A R I C O P A A R I Z O N A.”

Julie was a little out of synch with the Amtrak schedule, but I didn’t want to take a train anyway.
I just wanted to talk.

Most recently, I’ve been conversing with Irving at Hewlett Packard. Nice guy. He doesn’t announce his name, but I’m sure he’s the voice of the nerdy little animated guy who popped up on the screen of my new HP computer to ask if I wanted help getting it started. No, I said, I was sure I’d find the ignition key in a minute.

On the phone, Irving says, “If you need instructions at any time, please say ‘Help.’ ” With my wife sitting here listening? Sure I will.

In order to be a reliable reporter, I phoned Irving a couple of times this afternoon to make sure I was representing him accurately. Both times, I hung up before he transferred me to a live person.

A few minutes ago, Irving phoned here and said, “Hi, this is Hewlet Packard’s interactive help line. You keep calling and hanging up. Can we help you, or are you just some kid playing with the telephone?”

I thought a couple of seconds and said, “Irving, could you please call Julie at 1-800-USA-RAIL? She wants you to meet her in Maricopa for a romantic interlude…..Maricopa? That’s in Arizona. Lovely spot….”

(The Journal Of Prevarication is now a book, Arizona Liar’s Journal. Send $14.95, plus $4.50 shipping and handling, to The Wickenburg Institute For Factual Diversity, P.O. Box 1024, Wickenburg AZ 85358-1024. Or phone us. If we’re not taking a train trip, we answer our phone at 928-668-0351. The Journal is online at www.wickenburg-az.com)

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