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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Dom Angiello

Cindy is a character. I can see that right away. She lumbers into my awareness as I sit, at 3:45 with my son Jack and his girl, Tina, on the porch of Al E. Gator's in Fort Pierce. Having delayed lunch this long, we've decided to cool our heels a few more minutes and have Early Bird, which starts at 4:00. The kids introduce me to the heavy, thirty-something woman as someone they know from TVC, the shopping network, where they and half the retired people in Palm Beach County work part time. The effect of seeing Tina and Cindy together is comical. Tina is one of the world's doll-like miniatures. You could make another three of her out of Cindy's extra body mass. Cindy's rapid, continuous speech is like the bubblers people have in their swimming pools down here, so much like them that I entertain the whimsical notion that being near them a lot has influenced her speech. Maybe I entertain this fantasy because she doesn't seem to have quite mastered the pace yet. Occasionally, she runs out of breath and there is a slight hitch in a wrong place.

Cindy tells us that the food in Al E. Gator's is really good, but the service is slow. “They keep you waiting forever for your water, for your bread, for everything, and you're left just sitting there.” We aren't daunted. Even if the meal takes a while to come, it sounds like it will be worth the wait. Anyway, it's still fifteen minutes to Early Bird, and Jack is on his cell phone taking care of business as he paces the porch, so Tina and I have been relaxing on the bench in the shade of the porch roof. But Cindy has a plan for us. She thinks we will be more comfortable inside, where she says we can just get a table and wait for Early Bird. Cindy says, “Be sure to sit in Crystal's section, though. Crystal is a wonderful waitress. Really she is the only good one in the place. She sets you up with water and rolls and butter as soon as you sit down and she takes your order right away. I mean Crystal is wonderful. The rest of them keep you waiting forever.” Like most people, I guess, we go along with Cindy more to avoid hurting her feelings than because we are so worried that the service of anyone but Crystal will be unsatisfactory. Then too, Cindy's detailed knowledge of the place suggests to me that she works in Al E. Gator's and knows the ropes, so I am willing to take her advice.

Tina tells me later that Cindy has nothing to do with the establishment except that she lives in an apartment just behind the restaurant and eats Early Bird there daily, filling out the online Quality and Service Survey afterwards to earn the complimentary dessert the next day.

Jack says that, in the coffee room at TVC, Cindy complains constantly to her fellow workers about the low salary and announces she is looking for a job with much better pay, say $30 an hour. She tells them that she has $75,000 worth of furniture stored in Toronto, where she made big money as a “credit card manager.” She tells others of her lucrative job as a “department store buyer” in Dallas. I could be wrong, but it seems to me she talks too fast and too much to be fastidious about the truth. How much truth can there be, after all? My suspicion about her veracity makes me think of my mother's comment on an aunt whose accounts of events always varied from my mother's memory of them. Mom was a stickler for the truth, but my aunt embellished her accounts—maybe just for the creative exercise. She seemed never satisfied with people's obvious and ordinary motives, so she shaded her reports to add the interest of jealousy or anger or magnanimity. Mom said, “Your Aunt Alice is a big fabricator of small truths.”

As we are making our way to a table in Crystal's section, Cindy tells us that the paragon of service is on her way and will be on site in a few minutes. Danger signals go off in my head. This will not turn out well , I think. As we sit down, with Cindy standing right beside Tina's seat, a waitress comes over to take our drink order. Cindy tells her we are waiting for Crystal. The young woman looks puzzled but doesn't comment, and turns to her other customers. This waitress seems bright-eyed enough to me.

Apparently to kill some time while she awaits her personal waitress, Cindy sits down at our table and launches into a frantic account of how you can make up to $700 a month charging merchandise from the SmartMart circular. She only charges $200, but that's just because she doesn't want to put $700 on her charge card. But you could make $700 if you did put that much on your card. “See, you order this, and this, and this,” she says, indicating items in the multicolor direct-mail piece she's holding. “You can always use this item, right?” she says excitedly, “And this? And then you mail in this coupon and, a month later—Boom!—you get a $200 check in the mail.” Her explanation—which clarifies nothing—goes on, mantra like, to the point that I strongly suspect she must be selling some pyramid scheme.

I study my menu ferociously, hardly able to process a word of the descriptions of the “Florigator Fritters” and the “Trash Can Tortillas” because Cindy's voice is making my head spin with indignation. I am hiding behind Tina, in a sense, since, as a man, I might be excused from the charge of rudeness on the basis that I needn't be a party to a conversation between two women about shopping. Jack seems to be exercising the same strategy. Tina—little Tina—must bear the brunt of this onslaught. She says at one point, “I would never use that,” and repeats this assertion several times. Cindy says, “Oh, you can always sell what you don't want to your friends at TVC.”

Three separate times Cindy takes her leave of us, saying how nice it was to run into Jack and Tina, how nice it was to meet me. I can't see how she has met me at all. Finally, she takes a seat alone at the table just behind ours.

There is plenty of Cindy overlapping the seat—enough for half a chair more on each side. At one point, she asks from there if we were expecting someone else. There is an unoccupied seat at our table for four, and I feel my shoulders tense involuntarily as I anticipate that Tina or Jack may suggest Cindy join us. As I realize they will not, my shoulders relax. I hope I haven't visibly cringed. I realize by this time that Cindy is just trying to make friends, and I wouldn't want to hurt her feelings. I think she may have had her fill of rejection.

As we all sit waiting for Crystal, a family seated after us is being served. I catch the eye of the waitress who tried to serve us twenty minutes earlier. She comes over and takes our order for drinks and appetizers, and summons a busboy who fills our water glasses and promptly brings hot rolls and butter. We are halfway through our meal when Crystal arrives to take Cindy's order. Crystal is a beautiful eighteen-year-old. She is a Florida pattern: almost blank good looks under the usual blond hair pulled straight back but with jewel-like blue eyes. Except for her eye color, she looks like Julia Stiles. When she is not sitting with Cindy, she is working either in tandem with our first waitress or at odds with her. Even though we have lingered over our Early Bird, we are finished long before Cindy is. As we leave, I glance over my shoulder at the expanse of Cindy's back.

I associate her isolation at her table with what the kids have told me about their jobs at TVC. They say that each of the telephone people at TVC has his or her own desk. On one floor, a hundred of them occupy a room the size of a football field, but the ceilings are low, so the place doesn't feel like a stadium, and each operator is separated from the person at the desk ahead by a screen.

Although the pay is small, they find TVC a pleasant place to work. It is clean and well lit. The work schedule is very flexible. The people are pleasant, too. I gather that, in this area, where so many of the residents are new, the coffee room at TVC substitutes for familiar neighbors, family, the crowd in the neighborhood bar back home. It must serve as a place to assuage the nagging loneliness that some of the transplanted people had even at home, maybe, but since their move here, have become acutely conscious of, many having come long after mid-life to this new place that was swamp and sub-tropical forest only twenty years ago and then a tabula rasa and now a community—to use the term loosely—the result of a master plan developed by engineers. It seems to me that working in the windowless building TVC occupies would be a sort of practice for the mausoleum or for interment, but featuring electronic contact with the world of the living. When people in the outside world—really all over the world—see an object on their TV screens that stirs their concupiscence, they call in and someone—It could be Jack or Tina or Tina's parents or Cindy or any one of the many people who answer the phones there—sets in motion the computerized process that will soothe their urge for possession.

Most of the shoppers' calls are cut and dried. The operator's greetings and responses are scripted, and there are guidelines about how to conduct a telephone contact. For instance, they are to answer the phone with the appropriate greeting for the time of day and then say their first name—never their last—and request the item number the caller wants. They are never to use the customer's first name even if the customer urges them to do so.

As we drive back to the kids' apartment, I think of Cindy answering calls at TVC, what her conversations must be like, her part in them regulated and scripted but conducted in the bubbling voice I have just heard for the first time that afternoon. It must be a pleasant telephone voice, and Cindy has an impulse to kindness, which would come through in an acceptable way over that medium. Most people call with a need she can easily satisfy. They are ordering an item, the receipt of which she can facilitate. She can send one or many, according to their wishes; she can send it to their address or any address of their choice; but she cannot vary the price or modify the product. Cindy can be accommodating within those limits, and she is often genuinely enthusiastic about her callers' choices. Someone wants two of those lovely dragonfly pins for cousin Hope, the ones with the genuine diamond chips. “Oh, she will just treasure them! They're so elegant!” Cindy says. Another orders the genuine opal ring with solitaire setting in sterling silver: “I got that for my mother. Opal's her birth stone, and she loved it.” Another wants the old-fashioned wicker hamper which comes in a choice of decorator colors. Cindy exclaims, “That is such a good buy! I've seen them for twice the price.”

Sometimes Cindy works in the middle of the night, partly to earn the fifty-cent premium for the overnight shift, but mostly to avoid contact with her mother, who is calling every hour on the hour at home and leaving messages on Cindy's answering machine. Mother is very ill, and Cindy would like to help, but instead, she is accumulating guilt by avoiding the sick old shrew, who is always hurting Cindy's feelings by comparing her unfavorably with her married sister Lois, who lives in San Francisco and is a stockbroker and very successful but wouldn't lift a finger to save the infant Jesus.

The small hours after midnight is the time certain men call, their tongues thick with drink. They can't decide what to order or which of their girlfriends to get it for. Cindy asks questions about these women and forms a picture of each of them. She tries to help. Often these men order nothing. Usually they can't remember their girlfriends' addresses or phone numbers. But by the end of their calls, often they wind up declaring their love for Cindy. “What's your name again, Honey? I know who you are. I've spoken to you before. No, no, no. I know you're the one. Why won't you ever tell me your last name? Why do you keep calling me Mr. Gunderson? Please call me Carl. I feel I know you better than I knew my wife. Where are you anyway?”

A little piece of her dreams of telling them and seeing what would happen. She can see the tabloid headline: TRUE LOVE TRIUMPHS AT TVC.

In the middle of the night, men from Nebraska threaten to drive to wherever she is. “How can you deny our love?” they wail. They want to marry the understanding woman with the charming, effervescent voice.

She understands their loneliness.