PhoneMonkeyPNGHere I am, taking your requests. It’s a busy day, but I have a moment. Can I help you?


That’s good to hear. Your request seems simple. Would you like to give me the details, so I can put them into the system?


Great. It seems there’s a considerable sum of money involved here. Would you like a copy of the transaction details, for your records?

That’s okay.

It’s okay?



It’s okay.

So yes, then, or no?

That’s okay.



Okay. Will that be all?

Yes, thank you.


Dear Death

To Whom It May Concern

We idled through the line with our trays and then took our plastic-wrapped tunafish sandwiches and coffee in Styrofoam cups over to a small formica table. Flug talked about the problems he was having with the Gun Control Bill–trying to put it into some form that might possibly pass the Senate. I listened, glancing up now and then toward the food-bar, half-expecting to see somebody like Robert Kennedy pushing his tray through the line… until I suddenly remembered that Robert Kennedy was dead.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, p. 29

Dear Death,

How do we forget?

I know why we forget; let me put that notion to rest. We’re afraid–even paranoid–that you’ll show up on our doorstep unannounced. We do anything and everything we can to delay you–or, at least, we’re supposed to. We know this deep down, because our survival depends on it. And yet, we yearn for a moment where we don’t have to think about you, and we try to forget. So now, here we are, licking the Cheeto dust off our fingers and talking on the phone while wandering into the street.

We like to tempt you, for sure. We throw crazy parties in your honor, but not because we want you there. These are the kind of invites you’re supposed to respectfully decline. By inviting you, we want to look good, but if you show up, it’ll be awkward. With all due respect, you can be kind of a wet blanket.

This isn’t to say that we don’t outright beg for you sometimes. We’ll give you the address to a different house, and you’ll show up there and party for a while, but of course, they’ll eventually give you the right address, and you’ll come right over. And so on, and so on. So, yes, sometimes we deserve you.

You show up, and then after a while, leave with people we love, taking them “back to your place.” It’s rude, is what it is. But after you have left, hardly a moment goes by before we begin thinking of you nostalgically. You really were the life of the party, weren’t you?

Warmly (for now),



[Today, I’m revisiting and editing (for the millionth time) an essay I wrote a long time ago. Partially, this is due to blog fatigue. Being unable to get out of the house to do anything other than run errands makes finding something new and interesting to write about every single day a special kind of torture. The other part to “partially” is that the essay fits nicely and neatly into the prompt, and comes directly after the revelations in the pervious Serial Killer post. Enjoy.]

Serial Killer II: The Lord of the Thongs

The summer after my first year in college, I come back home and find myself working a temp job at Nordstrom’s Rack, a discount outlet that carries overstock and items that just don’t sell in the regular Nordstrom’s stores. Most days, I drag myself from the warm pocket of air between my sheets at about four in the morning, cram some food into my stomach, shower, and then get a ride to the mall, where I sit on the cold curb, watch the sun come up, and wait for the store manager to arrive and unlock the employee entrance. The work is decent—if a tad monotonous—and it allows me a regular schedule so I can plan outings with the girl I started seeing a week before I moved out of the dorms.

Because I’m just a temp and not technically a store employee, my duties include tagging and sorting clothes for the women’s department, while keeping my distance from actual women. During the early mornings before the store opens, I walk the floor with the regular employees, inflating balloons and straightening up displays that look as if they had been torn apart by rabid dogs. During the day, however, I am typically cast from the customers’ view and forced to set up shop in the stock room, where I organize and tag new arrivals. I fill rack after rack with blouses, sport coats, and slacks, all the color of unripe bananas. With a laser scanner strapped to my right arm and several industrial-size rolls of red, blue, and green dot stickers hooped around my left, I try not to let the hard fluorescent lighting rob me of my consciousness. It’s the kind of light that casts no shadows, except in the darkest loneliest recesses, way back behind shelves of lipstick and eyebrow pencils.

I have finally begun to have an interesting sex life, so it follows that fate, in its grand cosmic humor, arranges my singular instruction for the day: sort the children’s thongs. This means not just tagging and scanning, but putting the tiny thongs on the tiny-thong end of the rack and the itsy bitsy thongs on the itsy-bitsy end. This rack, like all the others in the stock room, is a three-tiered, two-sided construction of twenty-foot-long steel bars jutting out from the wall. It is designed to hold a few hundred thick parkas, but the thongs are so small and the rack so full that I am afraid to guess how many we have and why. As I look up at it, the twenty-foot expanse of frilly lace and string between me and the wall seems to stretch on to infinity. My supervisor suggests that the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish.

Three hours later, sitting atop a sturdy orange ladder, I have an armful of size extra-extra-small spaghetti-strap underwear, the smiling images of Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, and Hello Kitty emblazoned on the triangular fronts. I find it is best not to let my mind wander during this particular assignment. If I do, I envision the nine-year-old girls who absolutely mustn’t have panty lines, and then the mothers, the purchasers of the Strawberry Shortcake thongs that now lie limply over my knee. And then I wonder if the girls really did want them in the first place. We have enough thongs to last us a year, so there must be demand. This Christmas, will one of these girls tear open a small soft package to have three or four of these pink lacy contraptions fall into her lap? And will she ask, noticing the dainty, floss-like construction, what in the world they are—or will she hold them up proudly like the Stanley Cup? Will she be asked to model them—or will she volunteer? These are dark, sinister questions best not asked, let alone answered; yet the thongs themselves seem to be questions without answers. Aside from the time lost to the unusually long breaks I take this day—sitting out in the relatively fresh air of the parking lot, watching the shoppers bounce from shop to shop, and forcing myself to think about anything but the frilly lace inside—I spend every minute of my shift sorting the questions, both on the rack and in my head, and when I finish I feel as if there is an indelible stain on my cosmic record. This can’t be one of those things that everyone goes through—one of those experiences that build character—can it?

One of the quirks in oral storytelling I’ve developed over the years is the tendency to start with a statement or question, often pointing toward some awful or perverted aspect of human life. But the trouble with oral storytelling, especially to a live audience, is that the story gets bogged down with skeptical inquiries. It’s like watching a movie with that one hyperactive friend who won’t pay attention, but still wants to know what we’re all laughing at.

Let me tell you: there is little else in this world more humbling and sullying than having to walk around with armfuls of tiny, size-zero thongs, especially when they have Barbie and Hello Kitty printed on them. This one time, I was home from college for a summer, and I found work through a temp agency. They shipped me out to Nordstrom Rack, where it eventually became my job to sort little girls’ thongs. And—what? No, I’m sure they were children’s thongs. They had cartoon characters on them, for chrissake.

Listen, the specific size isn’t really what matters, because sizes tend to differ with manufacturers, but let’s just say that they were so small I wouldn’t have been able to fit them on my head. No, it’s not a sexual thing. Haven’t you ever been tempted to put underwear on your head? Well, your loss. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s actually a joke I played on a girlfriend once. While she was preening in the bathroom mirror, I dug around in her dresser, found a pair of smooth red panties, and put them over my head so my eyes were in the leg holes. When I jumped out of her closet, declaring, “I’m Spiderman!” it looked for a moment like she was going to cry or hit me. Or both.

So they were smaller than normal. Anyway, can you imagine a grown woman wearing a Hello Kitty thong? 

At this point, I face a quiet room and a lot of worried stares. But these stares I actually find interesting, because it tells me who assumed I actually thought about putting a thong on my head at the time. I hadn’t. The Spiderman incident won’t happen until almost a year after my brief reign as Lord of the Thongs. I’ve done some strange, questionable, and potentially (and actually) reputation-damaging things, but I do them if I think I’m going to get a rise out of someone. The only thing I would have gotten out of my boss is a pink slip. Maybe I’ll get a reputation as a premature Dirty Old Man, but in the perilous world of storytelling, that’s an acceptable risk.

Phone Monkey: All By Itself

PhoneMonkeyPNGAs I have explored before, customer service folk tend to have very warped fight-or-flight responses, and there are two main ways that we deal with this. One is to detach and try to become as objective as possible about the whole scene. The other is to become a balled-up fist of rage. Both have their pros and cons.

There is, however, a slightly better Third Way, which is a lot like Bruce Lee’s style in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. “When the opponent expands, I contract; when he contracts, I expand; and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” Among other things, Bruce had an expert knowledge of semicolon usage.

But how do you tell when your customer is expanding or contracting on the phone, or even via email? You have to draw from emotional memory. You watch the storm clouds gathering or clearing, and you listen to the wind rustling the grass.

Sentences that begin with “You…” are expanding. Sometimes, this is a misunderstanding of our service, and the customer comes out swinging because they’re hungry and upset. Still, in general (relationships, marriages, friendships, business partnerships, etc), beginning with “you” is generally taken as an aggressive act because whatever comes after is unloaded upon the other person. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding, and one person feels hurt. Maybe there is fault. Coming out aggressively immediately puts the other person on the defensive, which significantly lowers the chances of a satisfactory resolution. Even if the intent is just to unload baggage and vent anger, the likelihood of the other person actually listening to the complaint and noting the important parts for future reference is pretty close to nil. They’re probably just waiting for it to be over so they can think about just about anything else. “You” is a tornado warning. Typically, it goes the direction of, “You need to fix x right now, or I’m going to file a complaint with the BBB.” Occasionally, phone monkeys will occasionally get, “You are awesome! I love you guys!” It’s rare, though, and it throws us off our game.

A more neutral stance begins with “I…” and continues on about the things that affected the customer. It seems counter intuitive–that a more objective approach would be a more contracted stance–but “I” is self-indulgent, and as such, can go either way. Much like a cloudy day, if you take an umbrella out with you, it’s probably not going to rain, but the one time you forget, you’re guaranteed to get soaked to the bone. Think about this fairly typical complaint: “I found something wrong with my order.” Ominous, but not a threat. No fight or flight.

But follow from that… “It arrived without the crispy chicken, making me very sad.” They contract, and we expand, immediately reaching out to the right people to right the wrong.

But the alternative… “[T]he whole order was wrong. [N]ot impressed, very disappointed.” It’s subtle, but see the difference? Specificity and a shrugging off of a sense of entitlement really do go a long way. A little sense of humor helps, too. Can you guess whose issue was resolved first?

Customers rarely use the contracted stance. I attribute this, so far, to a misconception that asking for help is equivalent to begging. While we don’t want customers coming to us with axes and pitchforks, we don’t want them groveling, either. It’s embarrassing for us and for them. We’re in a relationship of trust. There’s something deeply wrong if either party has to worry about being rejected. Far from being a form of weakness, the contracted stance is open, like a clear sky, and allows us in to investigate and troubleshoot. “Here’s what happened…” it might begin. And like many once-upon-a-time stories, it’s more than likely to have a happy ending.

When the solution to the problem is clear to all involved, we won’t need to fix it. It’ll fix itself.

(For Day 12)

Phone Monkey: Tumbling

For lack of inspiration today, I’m drawing from the Daily Post’s prompt from a few days ago: Verbal Ticks.

PhoneMonkeyPNGI have a lot of verbal ticks for someone who speaks to people on the phone for money. I’m sure that there are professionals who offer weekend classes that promise to get rid of your bad habits and make you an aurally desirable person, but there’s some sick part of me that must enjoy inflicting my monotone drone and weird pauses upon an unsuspecting populace.

I speak a lot like I write. As of this sentence, I’m tick-tick-ticking along on my keyboard, making a serious go of not trying to find the right word and just get the message out. But before this particular sentence began, I paused, trying to find the right thing to say after such a good run. The same thing happens in real life. Here’s a sample of what talking to me might be like:

Hi, this is Phone Monkey how can I help you?

Ok. Uhh… [one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand] I see what you’re [one one-thousand] talking about. So you ordered a pepperoni and bacon pizza, but you’re a, uh, vegetarian?

I see. No, umm… I understand. [one one-thousand] Mistakes happen. Let’s, uh, fix that for you.

Oh, man, that is so me! It’s like I was channeling me right there! Crazy! I had one restaurant owner call me an “uh, uh, uh, stuttering dumbass,” but I, in turn, thought that he was a mean cocksucker, so karmically I think it all evened out. I probably could work on having more inflection in my voice. Think of the following two examples.

“Will you marry me.”

“Will you marry me?”

One of them sounds like a joyous inquiry, the other like an admission that one has gonorrhea. Can you guess which one was me (inflection added)?!

I’m great with the black-and-white, or so I’m told, but not so good with the la-la-la. (I was wiggling my tongue in my mouth and trying to figure out a good idiom for spoken words.) I’m hardly complaining, though. There’s a weird kind of thing–I’m not sure I’d call it satisfaction–that happens when you resign yourself to not being very successful when talking to people. They may never understand you or what important message you’re desperately trying to make clear, but you can be sure that you will never be misunderstood in writing. You can be so crystal clear that all your secrets are laid bare between the lines. Or you can be cryptic as hell.

And failing that, after the yelling is done and the all-caps have been joyously converted to Zapf Dingbats, you can always bring your own fantasies to life on the page.

Live the life you were never meant to live.

The Immortal

My badge is a small plastic square. Every few weeks, it moves a shade toward the next color in the spectrum. Red melts into orange, which blooms into yellow, and then green, and then blue. It has a safety pin on the back, but this is a token of passage from one level of swim lessons to the next, and there’s nowhere to pin it. Yes, I could probably pin it to my flesh, but swim lessons aren’t that hardcore.

The smell of melting cheese, roasting garlic, and baking bread permeates everything in the small pizza parlor. In the back, a large man with sandy blond hair–a man I erroneously call “Big Dog,” mistaking him for a man my father works with at the iron works–flours his hands and tosses pizza dough high into the air, making perfect circles every time. Working behind the counter, impaling receipts on a thin metal spike, is a woman with close-cut, bleach-blonde hair and a number of tattoos ringing her bicep and forearm. Next to her, running the show, is Maria. Her black hair is tied back loosely, and she projects the kind of calm, friendly confidence rarely found in hot, busy kitchens. She is an immortal. Twenty-five years later, she will not have aged a day. One gray strand of hair will be the only indication that she is vulnerable to natural decay.

When our pizza is ready, Maria brings it to us herself.  I’ve progressed from a child’s seat that clamps on to the table to sitting in an adult chair, just able to reach the pizza in the middle, to an adult who drinks too much Chianti and expounds on inappropriate topics too loudly, but she always greets me with a smile. No matter where I’ve been, or how long I’ve been gone, Maria always reminds me that I’m home, even if I’m not.

By the way, the pizza is the best there ever was or will be.

Sic Semper Adverbs

Day eight

The moving walkways thrum and squeak with mechanical rhythm, carrying the occasional passengers up and down the terminal. Distant sounds ricochet off the high ceilings at crazy angles, and every once in a while I look up. No one is near, however; the curves and recesses have misdirected the sound, and have confused my ears. A teenager bounds down the terminal with big, loping strides, the soles of his tennis shoes slapping against the polished tile in the rhythm of a waltz. The glass and metal divide and scatter the waltz until it becomes experimental jazz. Every ten minutes, a group of travelers bustles past me toward baggage claim and immigration. Announcements in three different languages ring out, all preceded by a tone in C major.

The middle aged Chinese couple next to me, legs crossed toward each other, mumble in hushed tones. A few people sit for a brief time, and then drag themselves to the toilets, smoking area, or shops. No one stops at the duty-free store. This is not the time of day to buy liquor in an airport. Some dazed passengers’ eyes wander around the terminal and take in their new surroundings. Others focus on a phone or some other communications tool.

I can differentiate between old suitcases an new ones by the way their wheels handle the trip down the terminal. The ball bearings in old suitcases rattle and grind, whereas those in new ones hiss and click in well-oiled precision. My eyes concentrate on the page as I type, but I can tell which people are flight crew and which are passengers by listening to the mileage of their luggage.

A C major pings over the PA, and my boarding announcement echoes through the terminal. I grab my gear and haul myself up. See you on the other side.

At the Dinner Table of Black and White

Day Seven

Why do you always have to be so negative?

What do you mean “negative”? Just because I’m full of opinions?

Negative opinions. Can’t you be happy for once?

Who says I’m not happy? Certainly not me.

But you complain all the time!

What, and you’re not complaining right this very moment?

Look, I just feel like there’s an absence lightness to anything you say. It’s depressing.

I am very colorful, thank you very much! And anyway, what’s your excuse?

Excuse me?

It’s like you don’t have an opinion on anything.

I’m beginning to have an opinion on our relationship, but I still love you.

Or if you do have one, you just whitewash it.

Why shouldn’t I? Positive mind, positive body.

But you don’t actually take anything in. Anything different, you just deflect.

Well, maybe you absorb too much. You ever wonder why you’re so screwed up inside?

Maybe I have to take it all in. There’s so much out there, why deny myself?

Even the pain?

Especially the pain.

But that just makes you all twisted up inside. Evil.

Yeah. Leave it to the stagnant, complacent one to call me evil. I’ve seen evil. I can show you evil.

You stay the hell away from me!

Mom! Dad! Stop fighting! Why do you always have to fight?!

Pancake Lady


The hot griddle causes sweat to bead just below her hairline, but it never seems to collect in enough quantity to come rolling down her slightly wrinkled cheek, so if she even notices it, she ignores the sensation. Her black hair is streaked with a little grey, but no stoop, waddle or limp will betray her age. With a nasally bark in Chinese, she gestures to me with the oiled metal spatula in her right hand while flipping a pancake with an identical spatula in the other. When I’m done stumbling through the wreckage of broken Chinese and mangled, affected English, she barks again in Chinese, this time to the young couple working prep behind her. The woman next to her flips her a couple half finished radish pancakes. Sinewy wrists work the flat circles of cooking batter over and over with lightning speed.

When the toppings are ready, the two metal spatulas blur and gleam in the morning sun, fluffing the pancakes and clinking in rapid staccato against the griddle. The metal and wood are extensions of her arm, and she never lets go, bringing anything she needs to the griddle with a flash and clink. When the pancakes are done, the limber wrists roll them up and slide them into a bag. Finally, she lets go of one spatula and holds the bag out, gripping the handles between an iron thumb and forefinger. When I take it and pay, her eyes dart to the next person in line, and she issues another nasally, high-pitched command.

I walk away, and the rapid-fire clinkity-clinkity-clinkity-clinkity follows me down the block.

For A Character Study


Crazy clients have drained me of my creative will today, so I’m going to jumpstart my brain and go after the daily prompt.

Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

I haven’t bought a physical book in a long time. I think it started as a way to thin down my ever heavier load, because transporting an entire library is a pain, especially when I’m still moving around a lot. Some books I like to have physically because they or their authors are special to me. I have my nearly completed Philip K. Dick and Hunter Thompson collections stored away back in the States, but the content stays with me digitally.

Thing is, I never bought a single one of those books, even the first one of each collection, because of the cover art. In fact, I can’t remember a single book that I bought because I liked the cover. Something you may have figured out about me after all these posts is that I’m cautious by nature. I start at one point and feel my way around until I can prove to myself that a suitable second step is solid. Outside the world of books, this has failed me on multiple occasions, when things I thought were perfect (or even good enough) proved not to be, typically in a spectacular fashion. And it has prevented me from pursuing opportunities that, in retrospect, would have changed my life for the better. But it seems to have worked well in general. I’m not a complete wreck, so that’s something.

With books, I will read a bunch of work from one author, and then jump to a different book related to that author in some way. It could be an author who cowrote a book with the current author I’m reading. It could be an author with a similar style, or from a similar era–like the Hunter Thompson-Tom Wolfe- Terrence McKenna-Thomas Pynchon-Philip K. Dick nexus–or the Davis Sedaris-Sarah Vowell-David Rakoff trifecta. From there, branching out is fairly easy. I can go back and find the works that influenced those writers, go forward and find the next generation, who used those authors as influences.

With digital publishing, it seems that more and more, cover art is far less important than how an author is connected to a reader’s current library, whether through genre, co-authorship, or writing style. Partially, this is because digital books don’t have true covers, but mostly, it’s because there are fewer and fewer physical spaces to browse for books. In the digital space, say on Amazon, you don’t walk down aisles of a genre, looking for a cover that pops out–you have an algorithm linking your past purchases and stated interests to certain other authors and titles that are guaranteed to be a hit with you.

But that doesn’t let us branch out very much, does it? We get stuck circling the drain in our genre of choice. We’ll satisfy ourselves with things that we like, but there’s not much room for growth to different genres or to books that might challenge us a bit more. It’s easy to put down a digital book and never come back to it. You never have to explain to guests, with at least a little shame, why you have a book on your shelf or on your coffee table that you know nothing about.

Perhaps cover art is a necessity of sorts. It appeals to us on a level that we don’t get from the cold science of digital marketing. In a way, maybe we do need to judge books by their covers more.