Um, hello, is that the President?

*it’s a longish read, make a cup of tea

It?s often the small things about living in the US that take me by surprise. And make me feel like a right idiot.

I got an email from the Humane Society urging people to contact the Government about the animals that were still trapped in New Orleans and pushing for more assistance to rescue them. The mail included a list of phone numbers to call – the White House, Governor?s office, Department of Homeland Security, etc. So I carefully composed a message to leave on the answerphones.

I was sure that whoever played back the voicemails would take particular note of mine, eloquently delivered in my educated yet accessible British accent. It might even be escalated to a higher authority and come to represent all the other calls on this issue.


So the phone rings a couple of times and clicks into a recorded message:

?thank you for calling the White House comment line, if you?re calling from a touch tone phone, please press 1?

Who has anything other than touch tone? Who are these 1970s rotary people who still wait for the clickety dial to amble back to its starting position before dialling the next number? Not to mention the curly cord that gets so twisted up that you?re left with about 3 centimetres from receiver to phone and have to contort yourself to make a call.

Anyway, I?ve got my golden paragraph in front of me and am ready to talk the moment I hear the beep. I?m assuming there?s a time limit/cut-off feature on the voicemail because otherwise you could get some nut ranting for hours about how the country is going to the dogs. Not the New Orleans dogs though.

The comment line is now ringing and a real person answers.

?Thank you for calling the White House, would you like to leave a message for the President??

Well yes, I say a little impatiently, wondering if they have to ask that because of all the wrong numbers they get. And then I wonder, what if these are deliberate delay tactics to allow Homeland Security to trace your call and check you against a national database of bad people. You think that?s far-fetched? Well think again.

Way way back in the 70s, aka the rotary phone era, my village chums and I would amuse ourselves by going to the only public telephone box and dialling (for free) directory enquiries. When the operator answered, whoever’s turn it was would shout out a rude word or insult and then quickly slam down the receiver. Our cleverly constructed insults were along the lines of ?you stink? or ?silly cow? or sometimes just a single word like ?bum? or ‘bloody’.

This was my main source of entertainment from the age of 9 through to about 11, when the game suddenly stopped. It was my turn to make the call and I?d decided to go for the triple – probably something hilarious like ?bum-poo-wee?. I ran out of the phone box and was basking in the praise of my friends when … the payphone started ringing. We looked at each other and someone shouted ?RUN?. After promising not to ‘squeal to the fuzz’ (tell on each other to the police, we watched a lot of bad TV) we rushed home and tried to act casual. Was it coincidence that the phone rang at that moment or did the directory enquiries people decide to teach us a lesson? Doesn’t matter, it worked. I haven?t called them in years, at least not since they started charging.

Back to the story. After crossing off Homeland Security on my list of calls to make, I tell the operator that yes, I want to leave a message:

Him: ok, you can go ahead now?
Me: ?What, to you??

In hindsight it sounds rather rude but I was caught by surprise. Why on earth would the White House employ real people to answer their comment line? And are they even in the White House or have they been outsourced to a call centre in India? I suggest to you that it?s a cunning ruse that forces people to truncate their messages into a couple of pithy soundbites. Only the most fearless would dare to rant at a real person. Awkward moments passed as I tried to decide what to do.

Option 1 – tell the man I?d call back. But that would seem odd, like I?d suddenly lost my nerve and decided to trust the President to get on with this job after all. Later, the operator would be in the break room telling his co-workers about the silly English woman who had to go away and think about it for a while.

Option 2 – modify my script a little to make it sound more conversational, without losing the punch that it undoubtedly packed.

Me: Ok, I?d like to tell the President that there are thousands of animals still trapped in New Orleans. Um .. many of the hurricane survivors risked their lives to stay with their pets but were made to leave without them and that’s awful and … now they?re waiting for news. I want to ask the President to tell the National Guard to help with the rescue efforts. And …?

It was very odd knowing that there was a person listening to me but giving no indication of that. No uh huhs or could you say that last bit again or let me just repeat that back to you. Clearly he wasn?t taking notes. He probably just had a sheet of paper in front of him with the words ?BIG ISSUES? at the top and a series of check marks against subjects like Iraq; Economy; Environment and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina might even have its own list, divided into sub-categories: Survivors, Clean-up, Screw-up, Dogs.

Him: Anything else you?d like to say??
Me: Um, no, I think that?s it.
Him: Alright. Thank you for calling the White House, I?ll pass along your comments.

I?m not so sure you will buddy. I think I’ll be just another statistic. But unlike the election which I?m barred from voting in, this time I?ll be part of the count. I just hope it’s not as worthless.