In December or January, I had a brief and unexpected hospital stay. This would not have been problematic had it not been for my roommate, who spent the entire time I was there either moaning to himself (in an unamusing way, alas) or watching cartoons, not fun, interesting cartoons but boring, insipid ones that made it impossible for me to concentrate enough to read or write anything or, in fact, to wish to live any longer. There wasn’t much I could do about that, however, since presumably any attempts I made to do anything about this would be thwarted by the hospital staff.
Nonetheless, I survived my time in the hospital and came home feeling fine. Fine, that is, until the bill came for $3,000 (this is with insurance), a sum of money I did not possess. I did what any self-respecting person without a real job would do under the circumstances, of course, which was to toss the bill in recycling, where it was joined post haste by a number of its subsequent iterations.
Eventually, and sadly, the hospital referred the account to a collection agency, whose bills I also tossed in recycling. I am no stranger to the depredations of such institutions, mind you, but it had been a while since I found myself trying to evade their clutches, so I was off my guard enough to answer the phone one day even though the number came up “unidentified” on my caller ID.
“Hi,” said the woman on the other end of the phone, “this is Christine, from Faceless Hideous Creature of the Oppressive Capitalist Octopus Services. May I please speak with Joel?” Somehow I wasn’t quick enough even with this warning to claim that Joel wasn’t in but that I’d be happy to take a message for him, so I ended up making an arrangement with awful Christine to pay Faceless Hideous Creature of the Oppressive Capitalist Octopus Services $300 a month until my debt was paid off.
The first month of this arrangement worked out fine for everybody; when I got my bill from FHCOCOS, I wrote a check, dropped it in the mail, and went on my merry way.
The next month, however, when FHCOCOS’s bill arrived, I found myself without $300 to spare, so I reverted to form and tossed it in recycling. The same thing happened the next month, and the next. Awful Christine called again, but this time I was smart enough not to pick up the phone; she kept calling after that, two or three times a week, but I rarely picked up, and the few times I did, accidentally, I told her that I’d gladly leave Joel a message. She gave me her number at FHCOCOS and asked me to give myself an urgent message to call her as soon as possible. After not writing down the number, I promised her that I would deliver myself the message as soon as I saw myself, and that was that.
Cut to last week, when I was finally paid for a project I ought to have been paid for in June. My first thought upon depositing the check was, “Oh, thank God, now I can pay this bill and stop awful Christine from calling me anymore.” (Actually, that was more likely my seventh or eighth thought; the first several had to do undoubtedly with chocolate, jacking off, and going to the movies, not necessarily in that order. But it was up there on the list, definitely way ahead of, for example, “Gee, I should really get back to the gym one of these days” and “Why is it that yawns are contagious over the phone?”)
Well, I have just gotten off the phone with Christine from Faceless Hideous Creature of the Oppressive Capitalist Octopus Services.
When she picked up the phone, after delivering the boilerplate (“This conversation will be recorded, this call is an attempt to collect a debt, etc., etc.”), the first thing she said was, “Mr. Derfner, I am so happy that you called today.” But the thing is, she sounded like she meant it—like she really was happy.
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve been worrying about you, and I kept on delaying giving your account to the attorney, because I knew you meant well, and you were so nice on the phone the first time.”
I was agog.
“Wow,” I said, and proceeded to make arrangements to continue paying my bill. She told me several more times how glad she was that I had called before the end of the month, because they wouldn’t have let her keep the account active after tomorrow, and how it made her so happy to think that I was in better financial shape than I was. By the time the call was finished, we were both laughing, and when I told her she’d made my day she told me I’d made hers, too.
And the thing is, she wasn’t faking it. Like, Christine isn’t some smooth-talking hustler. I could actually hear the relief in her voice. She cannot have been putting it on; if she were that good an actor she’d be on Broadway now, not working for a collection agency.
I’m still smiling about this phone call. Yes, I’m out another $300, with more to come, but stumbling on an actual person willing to display actual feelings of actual compassion during a business transaction might just have made it worth it.