Last week I brought to a close my one and half year experience as a call taker at New York City’s 311 call center. It was a part time job that I was able to land through CUNY’s Research Foundation department, and for the most part, I got what I wanted out of it: decent pay and a flexible work schedule for my senior year of college.
But even though I did well at the job and learned a lot from the experience, in the end it wasn’t a good fit for me, so I’d like to talk about my experience as well as teach you some things about New York City that you otherwise might not have learned on your own.
What is NYC 311?
311 is essentially the mediator between the public and the city agencies of New York City. It’s a phone line (or website) where anyone in the world can learn about city services and a handful of state services. The agencies contact the 311 higher-ups and handpick what information the public needs to know, as well as temporary information such as phone lines being down or if the Staten Island Ferry is running on a modified schedule due to mechanical issues.
(Or if the Joker hijacked two of them and planted bombs. You get the idea.)
Here are most of the city agencies that NYC 311 works with and has information about:
Department of Finance (DOF)
Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR)
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)
Department of Sanitation New York (DSNY)
Department of Homeless Services (DHS)
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH)
Department of Education (DOE)
New York Police Department (NYPD)
New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)
There are more than these, but I just wanted to name the main agencies to paint a picture of how many have their hands in NYC 311. You’ll also notice that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is not on the list.
Because the MTA is actually a STATE agency that functions in New York City. If you call 311 to complain about how your bus driver is being a slob they will just transfer you out. The same goes for the DMV, because it’s a state agency as well.
(Unless it’s a school bus; that you WOULD call 311 for.)
311 is also not directory assistance. If you’re looking for a pizza or a hooker (both calls I have gotten) you need to contact 411 for that. 311 does not provide the names of specific people or businesses, got it?
With the basics aside, let’s zoom into some of my issues, starting with how…
Getting There is More of an Epic Poem Than Going From Point A to Point B
The call center where I worked is located in lower Manhattan, leading to my first experience working in the city and commuting. Followers of this blog know that I’m born and raised in Staten Island, but what they might not realize is just how brutal the commute from Staten Island to Manhattan is.
“But Joe, isn’t Manhattan just a short ferry ride away?” you may be asking.
No. It’s not.
(“Are you looking for a smack in the mouth? Get out of here!”)
Here’s the breakdown of my commute:
45 minutes on the Staten Island Rail.
15 minutes waiting for the Staten Island Ferry to arrive.
30 minutes riding on the boat itself.
Then I get to Manhattan where I have two options:
-I could wait for the R train and take it up to my stop.
-Or I could walk north to the call center.
If it’s freezing cold or raining, I’ll take the R Train.
But otherwise I’ll walk. I used to walk up Broadway, but no matter what time of day it is, the street is packed tighter than waiting line at the entrance to Hell (But don’t get me started on the South Bronx).
Eventually I changed routes to Broad street which was nice because the streets were wider, less crammed, and I got to pass the New York Stock Exchange every day.
(Which is just as ominous in real life as it is in Hollywood movies.)
Now I’m not a mathematician, but if you punch these numbers, the total travel time comes to about 2 hours. And that’s just to get there! Remember, I have to GO BACK as well.
So minus one point for the commute.
Eventually I came to terms with the commute, and spent the time reading, but even so, the job itself was difficult due to my personality, mainly because…
The Introvert is Easy Prey
One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past few years is Quiet by Susan Cain. In this book she lays out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about introverts: how they think, how they live, and how they view the world. Introverts, in case you didn’t know, are the people who like to recharge their batteries by being alone. They’re not necessarily shy (although that is often a symptom) but just enjoy being alone more.
But it’s more complex than that. One of the more interesting things I read in the book is that introverts are HYPER SENSITIVE to stimuli such as noise or social feedback, whether it be positive or negative.
(But mainly social feedback. Ugh.)
The book details an experiment done where scientists took a few dozen babies and would play noises. As the results had it, the babies who were more sensitive to the sounds actually grew up to be introverts: the quiet, bookish types who write those movies you illegally download, program those videogames you just can’t quit, and engineer the robots that will one day exact revenge on the bullies who scarred them.
(But that’s not today, so into the mud you go, Egghead!)
I am an introvert.
I’m thin-skinned when it comes to stuff like verbal abuse, confrontation, and even praise. I bring this up because as a call taker dealing with angry stranger after angry stranger you need to be THICK SKINNED. You need to be tough. Seriously. The job is not for the light of heart or weak of mind, because even if a caller is giving you a hard time you need the strength to stick with them and solve their problem to the best of your abilities.
I’ve had days where a caller would really get inside my head and overwhelm me. They’d boss me around, talk about how I didn’t know how to do my job, or just be so DUMB that I’d lose my patience and need a few minutes alone to calm down.
(And I am someone who does not suffer fools lightly…)
So minus one point to me, for being weak.
Even though I would spend the day getting beat up on the phone, I was able to last as long as I did because the call center itself isn’t stressful, in fact, it’s more like…
An Oasis in the Middle of the Desert
The call center floor is AWESOME. It may noisy due to the volume of call takers dealing with customers, but other than that, it’s clean and well maintained. Everyone in the center is EXTREMELY friendly and smiles when you’re passing by. They ask how you’re doing or how your calls are going, which is always appreciated.
(I watch more TV than I should.)
The people who run the center (the managers, supervisors, Quality Assurance analysts, etc.) are also polite and understanding of the job that needs to be done, and they also give the representatives a lot of credit.
Which they absolutely deserve.
Always professional, always accommodating: that’s the staff of 311. The office can also be pretty festive at times. The call center holds themed weeks and days (such as customer appreciation week or wear an ugly Christmas sweater day) as well as hosting competitions among the callers for prizes.
(Wait. So it’s NOT bring your collection of harvested human organs to work day? Huh.)
It’s a lot of fun, and a welcome relief from dealing with the woes of being a New Yorker that customers call about. And I can honestly say that not once did I fear coming to work due to any sort of drama or issue going on with the staff or my co-workers, which happened OFTEN at my last job.
So plus one to the hardworking staff for making my experience a comfortable one.
But despite my gripes, the call center did help improve my character.
Plus 3 to Compassion and Plus 2 to Patience. Joe has learned the power of Diplomacy!
(Okay, I’ll stop with the Scott Pilgrim references.)
When I said goodbye to the call center, I sent out a farewell email to the staff (because like I mentioned, the culture there is one of support) and wrote that working at the call center, although often challenging, had shaped me into a better person in the end. Even though I discovered that the job was not a perfect fit for me, I can say that I learned two vital skills:
How to deliver bad news.
How to handle conflict.
These are the “soft skills” that many adults lack, and I feel privileged to have sharpened them at the call center. I’m leaving New York to teach in Gunpo-si, South Korea, and I will take everything that I’ve learned as I move forward.
Which is a nice way of saying I’m between jobs, so now I’m all…
That’s all for now. If you liked what I had to say please leave a comment below and as always be sure to SUBSCRIBE BY EMAIL so you’ll be notified every time I post, which should be getting more frequent as I get closer and closer to departure.
See you next time,
J. F. Seegitz
P.S. How was your holiday? Mine was AWESOME, because I got money.
(Korean money, that is!)