About the Writer
Steven Barker is the stage manager and co-founder of “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” In 2009 he co-edited the chapbook Hill Poems: A Collection of Capitol Hill Poetry. Currently he is working on a collection of essays titled Temp that detail the wide range of short-term jobs he's held over the past ten years. He is the host of the arts & entertainment podcast Ordinary Madness - www.ordinarymadness.org
I had just spent the last six months unemployed, sitting on my couch in my eighty-degree Seattle apartment, hammering away at my Netflix queue. I rarely went out for drinks or dinner in an effort to conserve cash. My government check was enough to cover my rent and bills with a little left over to stock up on Kraft Dinner and ramen noodles. It came as a relief when Amazon called and offered me a contract position with a decent hourly wage, in an air-conditioned cubicle, to be a seller support agent, I said, “I’ll take it,” before I even had a chance to ask, “What is a seller support agent?”
Apparently it only takes three weeks of training to learn how to support Amazon sellers. If someone had a problem with a bad review, they called me. If they hadn’t received payment for a product they’d already shipped out, they called me. If their account had been blocked or suspended, they called me. If they weren’t happy with the amount they were charged in postage, they called me. Sometimes if they were just kind of lonely and wanted to brag about how well they were selling on Amazon.com, they called me.
All my calls began with, “Amazon seller support, this is Steve, can I please have the last four digits of your credit card or bank account?”
Most of the callers I spoke with had just spent ten minutes on the phone with a customer service agent located in one of Amazon’s international call centers, and by the time they got to me they’d already spelled out their e-mail address at least twice in military call letters and were dying to just speak to a Human American. The most common first question was, “Do you know English? Were you born here?” I’d give them a confident, “Yup,” to put them at ease.
Once the caller was confident English was my first language, they would ask about their account. I’d put them on hold, telling them I “needed to do some research,“ which really meant popping my head over my cubicle wall to ask the girl next to me the same question. Ninety-nine percent of the time she knew the answer, told me, then I took the seller off hold and answered the question in what was apparently thought of as an acceptable American accent.
The girl on the other side of my cubicle wall was Ambika, a shy woman with a nervous smile, who dressed in sweaters from the young adult section at Macys and had a thick Indian accent. We went through training together, and in a class of over twenty people we were the only two who honestly expressed our anxieties at the thought of not being able to answer a customer’s question.
She fought her anxiety by doing the best in training, making sure to learn everything, so there would never be a situation in which she would have to tell a seller “I don’t know.” I didn’t follow the same approach. I spent most of training doing everything but pay attention to the teacher at the head of the class. I traded IMs with a cute chick in the back row on our assigned laptops. I would try to make her “lol” by sending her pictures of kittens with their heads stuck in peanut butter jars or dangling from ceiling fans. Other times I searched Amazon for authors I’m jealous of, so I could read their one star reviews.
Thankfully, Ambika was just a few inches of plywood away.
On a regular basis I got phone calls from sellers asking, “Why can’t I sell a breast pump in the used section?” or “How come no one is buying my used copy of The Da Vinci Code that’s priced at fifteen dollars?” Those were the easy questions to which I could answer, “Ma’am, you can’t sell used products in the health category,” and “The reason no one is buying your used copy of The Da Vinci Code is because others are selling it for one penny. You might want to consider lowering your price.” The questions that made me sweat were the ones about uploading giant inventory files or someone complaining about a policy violation and how come they’re not allowed to put their company address in their product picture. I never knew how to answer those questions and my anxiety increased with every second I wasn’t assisting the seller. I’d kindly ask them to hold in a shaky voice and pop my head over the cubicle wall. “Hey, Ambika, should a flat file be uploaded as XML or as an Excel spreadsheet?” I'd ask, or, “What is the policy on directing customers to an external website?” Ambika always gave me an answer and never seemed bothered by it. Occasionally she would ask me something, but I was rarely helpful. Usually I’d just smile and shake my head.
We each had our own five by five by five cage with two computer screens and a headset. There was a fifteen-minute break in the morning, sixty minutes for lunch and another fifteen-minute break in the afternoon. Ambika and I never hung out during those moments of free time, mainly because I’m shy, awkward and terrible at small talk, but more than that, because she wasn’t a smoker. The rest of the tar bar swingers and me hung out in the parking lot, avoiding eye contact, with the occasional remark on the weather. On really bad days, when something was wrong with the system, and calls were heightened and people treated us with even less respect than usual, we didn’t even stand near each other. I would hide in a corner sucking on my cigarette, rereading old texts just to look busy.
Ambika spent her off time at a table in the break room reading a book with a look of contentment on her face, like she was enjoying the silence more than I would ever understand.
Callers could be abusive and they sensed fear like pitbulls. What I lacked in knowledge I made up for with an easygoing voice and the ability to not take anything too personally. Being called stupid or an idiot is something you just have to get used to in the customer service game. One time I was told I was dumb as a bag of rocks by a woman who sounded like my grandmother, because I didn’t know the shipping cost on a 7oz. jar of maraschino cherries. Most people, when hiding behind anonymity over the phone, are straight up rotten. But even with the worst of the worst, I could usually convince them that I deeply cared about their problem and would do everything in my power to resolve it.
Other times there was nothing I could say, because there was nothing I could do. If a small business owner lost five hundred dollars on a deal gone wrong all I could do was follow protocol, which meant directing them to the claims forms. I hated doing that. They were looking to me for salvation, and all I could say was “I understand your frustration.” They got even more upset when I told them the claims department could only be reached through e-mail. Then I would have to tell them to wait three to five business days for a response, and that was about the time I was told to go fuck someone or suck something and/or shove something up my ass. I tried not to take it personally. But it wasn’t always easy, and that’s how Ambika must have felt all the time.
Regularly, I heard Ambika say, in her thick Indian accent, “No, sir, I’m in Seattle.” One time she even followed up with, “Matt Hasselbeck.” I can only imagine that she was speaking to some redneck in a recliner chair, with Cheeto crumbs on his cheek who asked, “If you’re really in Seattle, who plays QB for the Seahawks?” One time a customer called her a Bindi. I heard it shouted through her phone. When I leaned over to offer some support she told me she was fine and not to worry about it. The next morning she didn’t show up.
Eventually, her cubicle was taken over by a recent college graduate who had no answers, and pronounced the word “zero” like he was trying to shoot lasers out of his mouth.
Ambika’s parents were not born the in the U.S.A., but she was. I was not. The customers calling and asking if I was born in the U.S.A. had a very limited view of what being born in the U.S.A. means, as if white people with TV sitcom accents are the only people born here. I’ve lived in four major American cities, so I’m familiar with the melting pot that is America, but I never experienced it like I did in phone support. I averaged twenty-five calls a day from all over America. I spoke with a wide rage nationalities. More often than not I was the one asking the customers to repeat themselves, because I couldn’t tell if they were saying “C” or “Z.” It really would be easier if everyone just said “Zed.” Every once in a while I was told, “You speak English really well.” I never knew if I should take that as a compliment or not. I do know it was better than the one time a girl told me I sounded like Napoleon Dynamite.
I have lived in The States for over fifteen years and have yet to apply for citizenship. I have a green card, so I can stay the rest of my life, and I plan to, presuming I don’t get caught committing a felony. Just in case I snap one day and knock over a liquor store, I’ve been eyeing one of my best female friend’s child-bearing hips, wondering, if the time comes, would she be willing to carry my anchor baby? As a white, American-educated male with the ability to exaggerate my skills on a resume and the will to complete any assignment no matter how boring or tedious, I can reassure her, I’ll never go too long without a job. I still have family and friends in Canada, but I don’t see myself ever living there again. I wouldn’t even know where to look for work.
I’m a professional temp. I move from temp job to temp job, taking jobs from Americans while collecting unemployment in between gigs. We Canadians are always overlooked in the immigration debate, maybe because we blend in so well. Plus, there’s no hillbillies guarding our border. Mexicans are doing the jobs Americans don’t want. Canadians are taking the jobs Americans do want. I know plenty of Americans who want Jim Carrey’s job, but none who want Jamie Chavez’s job selling oranges on a freeway exit ramp. And it’s not just Mexicans - I highly doubt there’s many Americans who want to bike in the rain to deliver General Tso’s chicken and egg rolls. When I hear some ignorant American yelling about immigrants taking their jobs, I feel excluded.
I never knew for sure, but there’s a good possibility I was making more an hour than Ambika. I know I was making up to three dollars more an hour than a lot of my co-workers. This unsolicited information was divulged to me anytime someone said, “This job isn’t worth fourteen bucks an hour.” I would just nod as if to say, “yeah, me too.” Canadians need to be liked and I’m sure if the others knew I was making three dollars more an hour for the exact same work they’d quickly turn on me. None of us had any experience in phone support, but I had more job experience in general. I was about 5-8 years older than the average agent. Usually by the time a person is thirty years old, they’ve settled on a career. Not me. Living in America has given me the chance to coast. I work strictly to pay bills. When I walk about of the office at 5:00pm all is forgotten until my return the following day at 8:00am. I’m sure I could get away with that in Canada as well, which could also be why Canadians are always overlooked. It’s more of a lateral move when a Canadian shows up in America as opposed to the wealth of opportunity it offers someone from a country where clean water is a luxury.
I came to the States in 1993 with my family on my father’s pursuit of the American dream. IBM transferred him from Toronto to Connecticut so he could be a liaison between IBM America and IBM Latin America. My father is the first in his family to graduate high school as well as college. He’s completely self-made and one of the smartest people I know. However, he doesn’t speak Spanish. It’s ridiculous if you think about it: my father, a Canadian, immigrated to America to be a liaison between IBM America and IBM Latin America. I am happy my father got the job, and I wouldn’t have had it any different, but don’t you think a bilingual Mexican could have done a better job?
I know the Amazon job would have been a hell of a lot easier if I spoke Spanish. Knowing the language would open up a whole world of American jobs for me. There’s been a number of times I’ve been cruising a job site and have gotten excited about a copy writing job only to get to the end of the description and see, “fluent in Spanish required.” I’ve exaggerated on applications before, but I doubt I’d be able to pass as fluent when my only background is a C in Spanish 101.
As much as I hated working at Amazon sometimes, I stayed with it. I was happy to have a job in a terrible economy. Plus, I’d never done phone support, so I treated the job as a life experience. I had always been polite to customer service agents before, but now I’m so nice they probably think I’m stoned. I bet Ambika felt the same way at one point. I don’t know why she stopped showing up. I assumed she quit, but I hoped it was because she found a better job. We never spoke outside of Amazon. And if she did find a better job, I hope she beat out a Canadian for the position.
About a month ago my parents visited me in Seattle on their way to vacation in British Columbia. They return to Canada to visit family and friends regularly, but like me, they have no plans of ever moving back permanently.
One night during their stay that involved great food and lots of wine and beer my dad and I started talking about tattoos. We were outside a Queen Anne bar while I was smoking a cigarette in front of him, something I’ve only done a few times in my life and only after enough drinks I’ve lost count.
“Let’s get matching maple leaf tattoos tomorrow,” I said.
“Not a bad idea, son,” he responded.
We went back inside the bar where my mom and girlfriend were getting to know each other a little better. I thought the tattoo conversation was over until my dad tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’m about seventy percent sure about doing that thing we talked about,” he said. I figured it was just the gin talking. Eventually I put my parents in a cab and said I’d meet them for breakfast the following day. Twenty minutes later my phone rang, but I was in a loud bar and didn’t answer. I checked the message and it was my father saying, “I’m 100 percent sure.”
The next morning I went out for eggs with my folks. Just before the coffee arrived my dad asked if I knew a good tattoo shop. There were a couple shops on Capitol Hill, but because I didn’t have any tattoos I wasn’t sure which was a good one. I knew there was a place two doors down from where we were eating breakfast. I mentioned it like I knew what I was talking about, still not totally sure we were going to go through with it. We paid, the check then my mom walked to a bookstore. She wasn’t psyched about the plan, but she wasn’t against it either.
“It’s your bodies,” she said in that way mothers do.
We walked into the tattoo shop, my father much more confident than I. An hour later we were both branded with the symbol of a country neither of us lived in, him on his bicep and me on my inner forearm. I thought I had given up on the idea of getting a tattoo, but this way seemed right. I actually kept expecting it to wash off in the shower for the first week after getting it done, but no, it’s permanent. And now when I meet someone new and reach out to shake hands they’ll see the leaf and I won’t blend in so well anymore. And if the day eventually comes when I get my citizenship and I’m asked to raise my right hand to swear an oath to the United States of America, this leaf will be broadcast across the courtroom. Not as a sign of protest or unconditional loyalty to Canada, but as a symbol of America, a place diverse in culture, full of the people with the freedom to act as polite or rude as they want to a customer service agent.