This Call May Be Monitored

“This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.”

Until a few months ago, that line used to warm my skeptical heart just a little whenever I’d call a customer service center. I somehow imagined a benevolent older person listening to my calls, quietly gasping every time they’d hear my frustration with the customer service rep. Maybe they were seated in a glass booth above the call center flailing their arms every time I was placed on hold for too long or when I was asked to verify my birthday, mother’s maiden name and the name of my first pet for the 479th time. I thought they might be waiting in the wings, ready to jump in and rescue me when I could no longer listen to all the “press 1 if…” options and frantically kept pounding “00000!!!!!!!!!”

In the last nine months, I’ve spent most of my waking hours on the phone with banks, utility companies, and various vendors with whom Art did business. I’ve had to transfer accounts into my name, close accounts, open new accounts, update billing information, change passwords, merge accounts, subscribe to new distribution lists, unsubscribe from a billion other distribution lists, and fill out more than 225 pages of forms (yes, I’ve actually counted!).

I have generally thought of myself as a reasonable, empathic person who understands that most customer service representatives are powerless to change the torturous, convoluted processes they administer. One summer during college I made a feeble attempt at telephone sales. Though I was the child of a salesman, there is apparently no genetic predisposition to sales. I would sometimes call places where I knew no one would answer and pretend to be talking to a potential customer, on the verge of closing the deal. At lunch we had to dance the hully gully to inspirational music like “Aint No Stoppin’ Us Now” or “We Are Family.” Really. After three days of talking to busy signals, unanswered phones and hully-gullied out, my sales career came to a screeching halt and I returned to scooping ice cream. From then on, I had compassion for people chained to their desk by a headset. Maybe they had to do the chicken dance every day.

I learned early on that among the many benefits of same sex marriage, one rises to the top: the ability to pretend to be your spouse. We were, after all, the same sex, height, weight, had the same hair line. We even got our master’s degree from the same school on the same day. We were practically the same person, I figure. The first time it happened was when I called to cancel one of Art’s credit cards. When I told them that my husband had died and I needed to cancel his card, I was told that I’d have to request a specific form then return it to them with a certified death certificate and proof of my legal authority to act on Art’s behalf. My heart sank when I realized that was the first of hundreds of businesses that would require this. After hanging up I thought there had to be an easier way. I called back, said I was Arthur Shirk and wanted to cancel my credit card. After verifying his birthdate and social security number the job was done.   No form. No death certificate. No insincere “Please accept my sincere condolences.” They even told me that if I logged on to their system today, I could cash in all my bonus points for a prize. I decided to forego the prize to assuage my guilt over impersonating Art.

I adopted this strategy quite regularly until one day when I was told they just needed me to verify the answers to my security questions. Gulp. As well as I knew Art, I didn’t know what hospital he was born in or his high school mascot. Whenever a customer service rep told me they were about to ask me the security questions, I’d panic. In that split-second I had to decide whether to come clean and confess my fraudulent ways or go for broke. I gambled every time and was always successful…well except once. One day in the midst of my best Art impersonation, a credit card company asked “What school did you attend in first grade?” I paused for a second and remembered driving past the school during one of our visits to his hometown in PA. I closed my eyes and tried, to no avail, to picture the sign in front of the school but drew a blank. I had no choice but to do what any self-respecting, fraudulent person would do: I hung up abruptly.  My Catholic school guilt kicked in and I wondered if they now blacklisted my phone number and an alarm would go off every time I tried to call them again.

Feeling as if I’ve become a bit of an expert in the customer service realm, I can unequivocally say that the most complicated, least efficient businesses are banks. It’s kind of like dog years. For every minute you are on hold at Comcast, you are on hold for seven minutes at Bank of America. For every form you are required to submit to Verizon, you have to submit seven times more paperwork to the bank. It is like being a contestant on the Amazing Race. They dole out their instructions in short, incomplete segments never indicating how many more clues or steps it will take to reach your final destination. I was first told to “simply” bring in Art’s certified death certificate along with proof of my legal authority to act on his behalf. I smugly produced the documents immediately, foolishly thinking my work here was done. Five months and 75 pages of forms later, I started to think that maybe Art was the first Bank of American customer to ever die! Perhaps a Bank of America account was, in fact, the key to a long life! They certainly could not be this inefficient if they had ever work with a widower before.

In my banking despair I was assigned an Estate Unit Case Manager. In my social service career I have managed many case management programs for people with various sorts of challenges. The case managers with whom I’ve worked have helped people find housing, health insurance, health care, jobs, financial assistance, legal help, furniture and clothing. They’ve reminded their clients to go to appointments, have helped them fill out forms and have found the answer to seemingly every question. My case manager colleagues often joke that they would like a case manager themselves – someone to basically resolve most of life’s day-to-day challenges. My time had finally come and I imagined my compassionate case manager sitting under soft lights behind stacks of paper, relentless in their pursuit of my banking happiness. I was comforted knowing that some compassionate soul was probably lying in bed sleepless at night, eager to resolve Art’s accounts and let me go about my life in the same way my case management colleagues did with our clients. Not so much.

For the first two months after Art’s death, I would log onto his various accounts using his username and password. It was easy and it allowed me to gradually transfer any of his expenses to my accounts and identify other accounts needing to be transferred to me. But once you come clean and tell the bank that the person has died, the accounts become frozen and you can no longer access them. My case manager had cut me off at the keyboard. While I understand the whole privacy thing, it meant that I could no longer see the account from which our mortgage was automatically paid. For that matter I could not see what expenses were still being paid automatically from Art’s old accounts including some of our utilities, etc. Had I been warned that this was how the system worked, I would have taken care of these things ahead of time to ensure no lag in payments.

I’ll spare you all of the ugly details but suffice it to say that my mental image of my case manager shifted over time. I imagined them lying in bed sleepless at night designing new forms whose only purpose was to confuse me and delay the process. I imagined them not under soft lights but in a dark basement wearing a sinister grin while chainsmoking.

At one point I had asked my case manager what I needed to do to close out Art’s business account that still had a small balance in it. Any time she started a sentence with, “All you’ll need to do is…” my heart would sink and my blood pressure would rise. She matter of factly informed me that I would need to go the Secretary of State and obtain documentation indicating that there were no other partners in Art’s business that would be owed any proceeds and that no outstanding debts remained. “Oh, that’s all?” I replied with a not-so-subtle hint of sarcasm. “Gee that sounds easy.” Humor was not one of my case manager’s strengths. She was built for forms and bureaucracy.

A few days later I received a confirmatory  repeating the instructions. Well, they weren’t really instructions but just a statement saying that I would need to produce this documentation though they provided no directions on how to get it or what the documentation might be called. It indicated that I should bring this documentation with me to a local banking center when I get it. It was the next checkpoint in my banking Amazing Race.

Much to my own chagrin I produced the documentation. Once again with a certain air of smugness I showed up at my local branch of Bank of America with the letter in hand. When I presented it to the customer service representative she, with more smugness than me, said “Why did you get this documentation and why are you bringing it to me?!” I handed her the letter from my case manager with the instructions to which she replied, “those instructions just get sent out automatically but they don’t apply in Massachusetts.” “Do you mean the same Massachusetts that’s in my address on the top of the letter? The Massachusetts where you sent me the letter?” In my darker moments, I am like a dog with a bone in a battle of smugness and sarcasm. I won this battle while still losing the war.

I was told that what I REALLY needed to do was go back to the Secretary of State and submit a new form asking to essentially be made a partner in Art’s business so then I could take control of his accounts. I was told to confirm this with my case manager whose image had continued to decline in my mind. I thought she might be in prison by now for running a puppy mill.

I called my case manager three times the next day and waited on hold for 30 minutes each time. I never spoke to her which was probably just as well for all involved. When I finally reached her the following day she confirmed that her letter was wrong and the instructions I received at the bank itself were correct. That’s when it happened. Like every customer service call, this one began with the recording “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.” Without any conscious thought, as natural as breathing I screamed into the phone, “Dear God – please! If someone is monitoring this call – help me! Do something!” We both waited – me in the hopes of the patron saint of banking. She waited for me to get a grip. We both lost.

I learned that my case manager was nothing if not consistent. She was unflappable. Without saying anything, she waited long enough in silence as if to say, “Are you done now? Is your little tantrum over?” I could practically hear her tapping her foot, seated in her torture chamber. But I wasn’t done. A little more calmly I said to her, “You know what you should do? You should take that remaining money you are dangling in front of me and just go shopping! The chances of me figuring out what documentation to get, getting it to you and you approving it are zero, so just go shopping on Art. Buy yourself something pretty.”

With my head hung low I went back to the Secretary of State and explained my circumstances. Certain that they probably would not help me unless I showed up with Art’s cremains, I was shocked by his response! He quickly gave me the log in information to Art’s business in the Secretary of State website and showed me how to make myself a partner! No identification needed. No security questions. I later regretted not saying that I was actually married to Bill Gates and needed to become a partner at Apple! For all my fury over having to prove my identity over and over again, I somehow was now enraged and weepy with gratitude at the Secretary of State’s loose standards.

In the end I followed my case manager’s instructions, got the require documentation, and closed out the account. It was the last account that existed in Art’s name. When it was all said and done, I burst into tears. Another footprint of Art’s place in the world was gone. Art Shirk Consulting was officially closed for business.

The work isn’t over. There are computer passwords, taxes, memberships and more to be undone. There are retirement accounts at former employers that remain unclaimed. I’ve finally stopped checking his email. I’m turning his phone service off. I’m often let wondering, “where is he now? What is he? How do I negotiate a relationship with him now?” Fighting with banks, credit card companies and utility companies actually gave me a sense of still fighting for Art…claiming what was his and ours. I realize that as infuriating as it has sometimes been, it makes me feel as though we are still a team. I miss being Art and John. His name is no longer on any of the accounts. And so another letting go happens and a door opens to claim something else to which only I have the password – the emerging sense of myself and my identity, integrating the extraordinary gifts and lessons of the man I have loved.

 

 

 

 

~ by Art on November 8, 2017.

One Response to “This Call May Be Monitored”

  1. John- Thank you for writing this, I laughed & got sad and also learned a lot – quite alot to experience from a blog post, even one from the amazing John G i think ! I wish you a book that brings you joy – you have a writing gift …love love love

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