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By Chris Vespoli

AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.

It’s May 2009 — Memorial Day weekend to be more precise. I’ve just turned 25 and am in the process of moving out of my apartment on West 51st Street. It was my first apartment in Manhattan, and my first foray into the liquored-up, nightly-food-delivery orgy that is post-college young professional city living.

After two-and-a-half years of working an entry-level job in the research department of a cable network, I decided I was going to quit and follow my true passion: comedic writing. Many of my college friends had moved to Los Angeles, and as much as it pained me to part ways with New York, I figured I’d try my hand at freelancing out there.

Keep in mind this is right smack dab in the middle of the economic meltdown, which, I thought, was the perfect time to quit my stable job (with benefits) and move across the country to an unfamiliar, highly-competitive city, where literally every other delusional creative-type was clamoring to “break into the industry.” After a lifetime of playing it safe, it was the boldest decision I’d ever made. Or the dumbest. Is there really a difference?

There to help me pack up whatever meager possessions an early-twentysomething can fit into a cramped Midtown apartment were my dad and brother-in-law. After a long afternoon of filling, lifting, and trudging boxes down to the car, I decided I was going to treat them to lunch; it was the least I could do to repay them for their generous help. With them in tow, I walked down the block to one of the delis I frequented.

We ordered sandwiches, and grabbed some bags of chips and sodas. When it came time to pay, I greeted the guy behind the counter, with whom I was pretty friendly, and handed him my Capital One credit card. He swiped it.

“Declined,” he declared to everyone within earshot, and handed the card back to me. Knowing that I always paid my bill in full, and on time, I figured it was a good-natured practical joke. (Oh, Ahmed. Such a trickster!) But when he handed me back my card after unsuccessfully swiping it a second time, I knew it wasn’t a rouse.

Here I was, trying to convince dad I was making the right decision in quitting my job and moving clear across the country with no real plan for economic viability, and I couldn’t even pay for three measly deli sandwiches and a few cans of soda.

I sheepishly dialed the customer service number on the back of my credit card, right there in the store. After a series of recorded menu prompts and a few minutes of waiting on hold, I was connected with a real, live human man. As I expected, he was Indian (it being the weekend, my call was routed to an overseas call center). Let me note here that I only mention this man’s nationality in the interest of being a thorough storyteller (The Internet has accused me of being a “racist” for the mere mentioning of a person’s ethnicity).

Through broken English, the man inquired as to the nature of my issue. I explained that I was standing in a deli and that my credit card was unexpectedly declined. I could hear him rapping away on his keyboard as he informed me he was looking into the problem.

Now was the point in the phone call every person who dares dial a customer service line dreads: small talk with the customer service representative as they “wait for the system to update.” Perhaps some day, when quantum computing becomes a reality and all information retrieval is instantaneous, there will be no opportunity for small talk during such calls.

Or better yet, in the future, everything will just work, eliminating the need for customer service calls altogether. I’ve never seen Mr. Spock on Star Trek have to call customer service. Yes, hello? My phaser is stuck on ‘stun.’ …I understand, but I find a limited 6-month warranty to be highly illogical. I…What? Yes, I’ll hold.

The man asked me what I was trying to purchase. I explained, again, that I was in a deli, trying to buy some sandwiches. His professional call center voice melted into a friendlier timbre. “You are in New Delhi? I am in Bombay!” It dawned on me that this guy thought I was in India, too. I delivered the disappointing news that I was not in New Deli, but a delicatessen in New York. I heard his voice drop on the other end with a sad “oh.” Then he went right back to investigating the issue with my card.

I actually felt bad for the guy. He sounded pretty lonely. I imagined him there, in the call center, with his little headset on, getting all excited at the prospect of talking to someone in his home country after a long day (or night?) of helping people in America sort out their bullshit first-world credit card problems. But then I had to go and ruin it.

A hypothetical scenario raced through my head: What if I actually were in New Delhi? Would he have been like, “Hey, why don’t you come on over to the call center? We’ll figure this credit card thing out together!” We’d share some laughs. Talk about sandwiches. Really get to know each other.

Before I could think too much more about it, he informed me that the reason for my card trouble was due to a system error. My account had been suspended because of an erroneously triggered fraud alert, and it would be a few hours until my card was reactivated. He apologized for my inconvenience and bid me good day. I bid him the same, and we hung up.

Turning back to my dad and brother-in-law, I offered to run to an ATM to get some cash to pay for the food, but my dad, panged with hunger, stepped in and threw his money down on the counter. It looked like I’d have to wait until I got to Los Angeles to prove I could survive without a safety net.

We walked out of the deli and back toward my empty apartment. Even though the debacle wasn’t my fault, I felt pretty hapless. My thoughts returned to the sad Indian man, and I wondered if Craigslist had a Missed Connections for customer service reps. It sounded like that guy could really use a friend, too.


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