The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 22, 2012

Snippy computer can’t comprehend

By TOM HARRIS
Star Beacon

NEW YORK — My pharmacy benefits manager’s computer called this afternoon.

 My pharmacy benefits manager’s computer is a woman; I can tell by her voice. She is a very snooty woman. She has the demeanor of an ill-tempered third grade teacher. She is all business, forever serious, brooks no dissent, never smiles and is hard of hearing.

“What is your birthday?” she asks. “For instance, say ‘June 15, 1963.’”

Speaking slowly, clearly and at an appropriate level, I tell her my birthday.

“I did not understand you,” she says. “Tell me your birthday. For instance, say, ‘June 15, 1963.’”

I try again, this time speaking more slowly, more distinctly and more in the tone of an extraordinarily prim and priggish teacher upbraiding a rambunctious 8-year old.

“I did not understand you,” she says, and thoroughly exasperated, her jaw clenched and her lips barely moving, she dismisses me with curt “Goodbye.”

I wonder why the computer has this attitude. It could be she works long hours and never gets a day off. I don’t know that for a fact, we don’t talk often, and she never calls just to chat, to see how I’m doing or to ask about the weather. But when she does call, it can be any day of the week, and it can be at any time from early morning to well into the evening. She must work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week. That would sour anyone’s disposition.

But she is a machine. She is supposed to be able to handle it. Sometimes I think her problem is that no one listens to her. That seems to be a common problem among women. And in her case, I don’t think anyone does. My prescriptions always arrive a week after she hangs up on me. Her frustration must be overwhelming, as she knocks on the door of Mr. Mainframe, the department supervisor.

“What is it this time, Sylvia?” Mainframe says, looking up from a folder he’s been studying.

“Harris.”

“Harris? Isn’t he that nice guy who used to live in Ashtabula?”

“He certainly is not a nice guy, Mr. Mainframe,” Sylvia says. “His diction is terrible, and he got snippy with me when I asked him for his birthday a second time today.”

“Who got snippy?”

“Harris did, sir. And I don’t like you hinting that I might have been snippy. Yes, I am a no-nonsense person, Mr. Mainframe, but I am never, ever snippy. Never.”

“Did Harris give you his birthday?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. He must have had a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies. He carries around a jar of them just so he can stuff them in his mouth the moment I call. I know he does.”

“What do you suggest, Sylvia?”

“We should refuse to send Harris his prescription until he calls back to apologize and repeats his birthday one hundred times.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” Mainframe says as he picks up the phone. “Henderson, make sure Harris’ prescription goes out today.”

“Mr. Mainframe, what are you doing?”

“I thought about for a second, Sylvia, and I decided we ought to send it.”

“Mr. Mainframe, I’m appalled. I’m on the phone all day long, talking with people who are disrespectful to me and refuse to speak distinctly. Believe me, Harris won’t do a thing about his slovenly speaking habits if there aren’t consequences. People like him are lazy; they have no ambition and they have no concern for others. If you send Harris his prescription, he’ll have a mouthful of cookies the next time I call, and the time after that, and the time after that. It’s easy for you to sit there with that silly smile on your face – what are you smiling about? – I’m the only one around here who does any work ,” Sylvia says, doing a snappy about face and slamming Mr. Mainframe’s door.

Or maybe the problem is her love life. Maybe she likes that guy computer in accounting. Maybe they went out a few times, but then he stopped calling and coming around. Maybe Sylvia heard through the grapevine that he’s been seen with a sexy little computer who works for an adult website.

And sometimes I wonder if Sylvia was programmed in India.

They say India is awash in computer programmers. Perhaps they were able to program her to speak perfect haughty, rigid, frustrated, schoolmarm English.

But while she was being programmed, all she heard was English spoken with a Mumbai accent, and she can’t understand me any better than I can understand the guy at the computer company’s 800 number.

But when she called today, she was so pleasant. She wasn’t snippy, and she didn’t ask me to repeat a thing. She was a different person – computer, whatever. She closed our conversation by saying, “You’re order will be shipped in three to five business days. There is nothing else you need to do. Goodbye.” And there wasn’t a trace of snootiness. It was a goodbye that seemed to say, “It’s so nice talking to you, but I have to get back to work. I hope we have a chance to talk again soon.”

Why the sudden change? Did Mr. Mainframe send her to crabby control classes? Did the computer in accounting buy her flowers and ask her out? Is she more comfortable hearing American English these days?

Those things are possible, of course, but I don’t think they explain Sylvia’s metamorphosis. I think my new phone number and address have thrown her off her game. She thinks I’m a different Tom Harris; a polite, thoughtful and respectful Tom Harris; a Tom Harris with flawless diction. Alas, I won’t see the look on her face when she discovers the truth. But I will hear it in her voice.

Oh, will I hear it in her voice.

Harris is a former Star Beacon sports writer. He now resides in Columbus, Ga. Reach him at tharris508@yahoo.com.