Heeding The Call

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No one spoke at first.  I heard machines beeping in the background.  Oh geez, I realized, I’ve reached someone in a hospital room. This was my 74th call for the Joe Biden campaign. 

I live in Pennsylvania so I volunteered for Biden. I had to do something. I was too nervous to just passively marinate in my extreme worry as the critical day grew nearer.  

So a week before the election, I sat through live internet training with a few thousand other volunteers from all over the country. We would be calling Democrats across the U.S. to get out the vote (GOTV).  It was simple enough: follow a script, provide info on their voting options/local polling stations, engage about the issues if anyone was on the fence (??!!), and BE KIND. Volunteer monitors would be available in real time if we encountered any problems. It was comforting that the campaign seemed so organized, efficient, and well-staffed.

But I would require more than kindness to navigate this experience.

My first day we were all assigned to call PA Democrats.  Almost everyone I reached hung up immediately – without saying a word – as soon as they realized it was a campaign call.  A few folks listened patiently and said they would be voting for Biden (thank you!).  We discussed their “voting plan” (everyone had a plan).  One woman said if she got one more call from the Biden people she was going to vote for Trump just to spite us.  Oddly I took this as an encouraging sign.

The next day’s calls – this time to Florida – started out the same.  Hang up after hang up. A few solid Biden voters. And then – call #74.

“Hello?” the man in the hospital room said. “Can you hold on for a second?”

“Sure” I answered.

“Honey, how are you feeling?  Can I get you anything?” he asked away from the phone.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I think I’ve reached you at a bad time – I’m just calling from the Biden campaign – we’ll try to connect another day”.

“No I’m here, sorry…my wife’s in labor – it’s our first kid – we’ve been here since yesterday morning and it’s slow going. But I want to talk to you – your group called the other day and we didn’t get to finish our conversation.  Hold on…”

“Can I get you ice chips?  I’ll get you some ice chips in a minute” he said to his wife.

He talked to a passing nurse and asked her about some medication. I tried to tell him really, this is not important, we’ll call back another time.  He kept returning to the phone “Are you still there?  Thanks for holding on, I want to talk to you…”

Then, suddenly, his wife is screaming. The sound does not build from slow rhythmic moans of discomfort. She had been silent.  It bursts out in an explosion of primal pain.  His wife’s anguish goes from 0 to 100 in less than 5 seconds.

My heart is racing.  I’ve never had a baby.  What is happening?  I thought labor unfolded slowly.  None of this sounds good to me.  I’ve never heard a human make these noises. I don’t know what to do.

“Oh my god oh my god – honey what’s WRONG? What do I do what do I do?  I’m not ready for this – what do I do?? I’m going to faint. I’m going to throw up”, he cried.

I think I said “get the doctor!”, (much of this blurry to me now). I know I said “I’m going to hang up – don’t worry – it will be fine – you’ll do great!  

“Are you still there?  DON’T HANG UP!” he said. 

I hear yelling in the background.  The doctor enters the room and there’s the sound of chaotic activity, machines peeling wildly between the screams.

“This is bad” the doctor says.

“What do you mean BAD?  WHAT IS HAPPENING???” the man yells. 

“The baby’s breech. It’s coming now.  The shoulders are stuck.”

“What do you mean STUCK?? WHAT IS HAPPENING?? OH MY GOD!!!”, the man explodes.

My heart is POUNDING.  The wife’s screams get more soul-curdling.  I say to the husband – “HANG IN THERE – you’re doing great – deep breaths – you’re doing great”.  He keeps asking me to stay on the phone, almost like he needs me but I don’t know how to help him. I should NOT be a part of this.  It’s all happening SO FAST – no more than a few minutes have passed since the auto-dailer connected me to this man.  

I am so scared for them. What if the baby dies???

After lots of confusion and scary noises, suddenly there’s a new kind of wailing: the robust cries of a newborn.  

“Congratulations – you have a baby girl – come cut the cord!” the doctor says, sounding joyous and relieved.  

That’s how I feel too.  Shaking and teary and my heart racing and omg the humanity.

The man is cutting the cord. No longer concerned with the phone.  No longer asking me to please hold on.  I am exhilarated, holding my head in my hands and smiling in a way that’s not quite a smile. I say “Congratulations. You did great!!” but he’s not listening.  He’s living in this moment. I hang up.

I am gobsmacked. Breathing quickly, my hands shaking.  WTF just happened?

I call some friends (ironically, as I am not a phone person).  But I have to share what I just experienced.  This improbable encounter. It’s a great story and everyone is amazed and thinks it sounds like it would make for a fun local TV news segment…

After I calm down (a little) I contact the Biden campaign volunteer monitors.  I need to tell them my story too. I want to get the name and address of the man I talked to (it disappeared from my screen when I hung up the call).  I want to send him and his wife a note of congratulations and well wishes. 

The first folks I message are amazed -what a story! But they can’t help me get the guy’s information. I try another campaign channel and tell the story to yet another campaign monitor.

“I’m so sorry to tell you this, but it sounds like you were a victim of a RoboKiller Answer Bot” she texts me.

My brain scrambles. My heart starts to pound again. Her reply makes no sense to me.

She explains that “RoboKiller” is a service people purchase to intercepts calls made from automatic dialing systems (like campaigns and fundraisers use to connect people). I’ve never heard of it.  As an added feature, subscribers can choose their own “Answer Bot” – elaborate recordings featuring multiple actors, some of them designed to draw you into insanely emotional situations.  They are remarkably realistic, expensively produced and very clever.  “Some answer bots are actually pretty violent, scenarios where people are being mugged or attacked. Don’t feel badly. We’ve all been fooled by them more than once”, she assures me.

What what what?

My mind races back to the call. It’s not possible.  Like the climax of “The Sixth Sense” I replay the conversation in my head, scene by scene.  Didn’t he respond to me? We had a back and forth over a few minutes. Didn’t he ask me to stay on the line??? But he kept getting interrupted, distracted by the chaos – so maybe he didn’t respond to me? I could not comprehend it.

Still shaking, I did some Googling.  Confirmed the existence of “RoboKiller” and the “Answer Bot” feature.  There are actually several companies that provide this special service. I even found a listing online for a “delivery room chaos” answer bot.

The company promises: “…hilarious pre-recorded audio messages designed to…trick unsolicited callers into thinking they’re speaking with a real person… Our Answer Bots keep these bad hombres on the phone, while you go about your day.”

And as a bonus, subscribers to the service can listen to the recorded call later – for laughs!  Listen to all the stressed-out, humiliated campaign volunteers getting punked!  “Hilarious, entertaining, and just the right amount of vengeful. Answer Bot recordings are too good not to share!” their website boasts.

What could be more fun?

I get it that calls from fundraisers and campaigns can be annoying. And we’ve all run across funny answering machine messages that sounded like a live person. These answer bots are something else entirely.

It was a complete mind F#*!*. The swing from a few intense minutes of connecting during a pinnacle human experience to realizing I was the target of an elaborate set up designed to keep me panicking on the phone for as long as possible felt like emotional whiplash. 

I’m not a “snowflake”, but the cruelty seemed gratuitous. Cruelty seems like sport these days.

I had no idea I was so credulous (no doubts now).

I had no idea people could work so creatively to traumatize a stranger (they can; you can even build a business from it!)

I am glad Joe Biden won.

About the Author: Teresa Stack is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets.  From 1998-2016 she was president of The Nation magazine, running the company’s business operations. Today she works from her home in Pennsylvania, doing freelance writing work and directing The Nation’s progressive educational travel program.  She is a producer of the soon-to-be-released short documentary, The Road to Justice, which follows the transformational journey of a group of middle school kids from Chicago and older Nation readers as they tour the south, meeting unsung heroes of the 60s Civil Rights movement.