After 130,000 conversations--all ending with "Have a nice day and thanks for calling" -- I think it's fair to say I'm a survivor. I've made it through all the calls from adults who didn't know the difference between a.m. and p.m., from mothers of military recruits who didn't trust their little soldiers to get it right, from the woman who called to get advice on how to handle the man who wanted to ride inside the kennel with his dog so he wouldn't have to pay for a seat, from the woman who wanted to know why she had to change clothes on our flight between Chicago and Washington (she was told she'd have to make a change between the two cities) and from the man who asked if I'd like to discuss the existential humanism that emanates from the soul of Habeeb.
In five years, I've received more than a boot camp education regarding the astonishing lack of awareness of our American citizenry. This lack of awareness encompasses every region of the country, economic status, ethnic background and level of education. My battles have included everything from a man not knowing how to spell the name of the city he was from to another not recognizing the name "Iowa" as being a state, to another who thought he had to apply for a foreign passport to fly to West Virginia. They are the enemy, and they are everywhere. In the history of the world, there has never been as much communication and new things to learn as today. Yet, after asking a woman from New York what city she wanted to go to in Arizona, she asked, "Oh... is it a big place?" I talked to a woman in Denver who had never heard of Cincinnati, a man in Minneapolis who didn't know there was more than one city in the South ("wherever the South is"), a woman in Nashville who asked, "Instead of paying for your ticket, can I just donate that money to the National Cancer Society?" and a man in Dallas who tried to pay for his ticket by sticking quarters in the pay phone he was calling from.
I knew a full invasion was on the way when, shortly after signing on, a man asked me if we flew to Exit 35 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then a woman asked if we flew to area code 304. And I knew I had been shipped off to the front when I was asked, "When an airplane comes in, does that mean it's arriving or departing?"
I remembered the strict training I had just received -- four weeks of regimented classes on airline codes, computer technology and telephone behavior -- and it allowed for no means of retaliation. "Troops," we were told, "it's a real hell out there and ya got no defense. You're gonna hear things so silly you can't even make 'em up. You'll try to explain stuff to your friends that you don't even believe yourself, and just when you think you've heard it all, someone will ask if then can get a free roundtrip ticket to Europe by reciting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"
Well, Sarge was right. It wasn't long before I suffered a direct hit from a woman who wanted to fly to Hippopotamus, N.Y. After assuring her that there was no such place, she became irate and said it was a big city with a big airport. I asked if Hippopotamus was near Albany or Syracuse. It wasn't. Then I asked if it was near Buffalo. "Buffalo," she said, "I knew it was a big animal!" Then I crawled out of my bunker long enough to be confronted by a man who tried to catch our flight to Maconga. I told him I'd never heard of Maconga and we certainly didn't fly to it. But he insisted we did and to prove it showed me his ticket: Macon, GA.
Now I've done nothing during my conversational confrontations to indicate that I couldn't understand English. But after quoting the ROUNDTRIP fare the passenger JUST ASKED FOR he'll always ask: "...Is that ROUNDTRIP?" But I've survived to direct the lost, correct the wrong, comfort the weary, teach U.S. geography and give tutoring in the spelling and pronunciation of American cities. I have been told things like, "I can't go stand-by for your flight because I'm in a wheelchair." I've been asked such questions as: "I have a connecting flight to Knoxville. Does that mean the plane sticks to something?" And once a man wanted to go to Illinois. When I asked what city he wanted go to in Illinois, he said, "Cleveland, Ohio."
After 130,000 little wars of varying degrees, I'm a wise old veteran of the communication conflict and can anticipate with accuracy what the next move "by them" will be. Seventy-five percent won't have anything to write with or on. Half will have not thought about when they're returning. A third won't know where they're going. A few won't care if they get back. And James will be the first name of half the men who call. But even if James doesn't care if he gets to the city he never heard of; even if he can't spell, pronounce or remember what city he's returning to, he'll get there because I've worked very hard to make sure that he can. Then with a click in the phone, he'll become a part of my past and I'll be hoping that the next caller at least knows what day it is. Oh, and James... "Thanks for calling and have a nice day."
Jonathan Lee is a Nashville, Tenn.-based reservations agent and writer of television commercial jingles. This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.