Communication Breakdown

So. Many, many years ago, we the field crew of the maintenance department of Cavendish Junior College (not its real name) were promised cell phones. We’d been carrying pagers for many years, which no one liked, so we were all looking forward to carrying cell phones. After all, when a pager goes off twenty times a day and you’re in the middle of five jobs and two calls and all you can do is scream impotently to the heavens, then you have to drop everything and search for a phone so you can call the office back– and by then you might have cooled off and been civil.

But if you have a cell phone, it rings, you can answer it wherever you are and you get to scream at the person on the other end immediately, because that person is someone in your office who sits at a desk all day with nothing better to do than send you on wild goose chases to (in theory) address every minor complaint, real or imagined, of each and every college staff, faculty or student secretary. (Most of these involve “funny” smells. We’ll talk about that at a later date.)

It was especially challenging if the page came twenty minutes after you’d told the office “ladies” (as directed by the director) you were heading out to the satellite campus 45 minutes away, and you’re on the highway in the middle of nowhere and there aren’t any pay phones to be found in the entire county. (Kids and millennials: ask your grandparents to explain “pay phone.”)

The promise of cell phones came with a slick PowerPoint presentation in a divisional meeting. We the loyal field staff had our doubts. Promises, promises. The phones would be Nextels with instant two-way communication. About the size and weight of a standard brick, they would be High Impact Yellow, because, as the director said to all the staff and department directors and upper level administrators: “These guys are gonna lose them! I know they’re gonna lose them! And when they lose them, maybe we can find them if they’re yellow! Because they’re gonna lose them!

Eventually, exceeding all our meager expectations, we got cell phones! Less than a year later! They weren’t high impact yellow, but to my knowledge, not one field staffer ever lost a cell phone— even though the replacements over succeeding years got smaller and never came in anything but black or gray. Sure, a few got dropped off ladders and exploded like hand grenades, or took unfortunate and always fatal plunges into toilets, but none were ever lost! Not one. All that humiliation for nothing.

When we got the cell phones we were encouraged to use them! Use them all you want! Personal calls! Overseas calls! Call anyone you want, any time, you have unlimited minutes, you’ll never use them up! Some of us were a bit wary, to say the least. This sounded like a trap, and we had had traps spring on us before. But over the next few months, we got complacent.

So later, maybe a year or so later, our department got a bill from the IT department for $3000.

“What’s this for?” our office manager demanded of the IT director.

“Your department went over your cell phone limit on minutes,” she was told– to the tune of $1000 per month for three months.

“[REDACTED!]” she bellowed. “What the [REDACTED] is this all about? You said we had unlimited minutes and we’d never use them up!”

“Oh,” IT manager replied timidly. “Um, we changed our service plan a few months ago. I guess maybe we didn’t tell you about it?”

We had to shake loose $3000 to pay the only department on campus that was allowed to back-charge for services. If they wanted a new “workroom” with full cafeteria facilities and adjacent Hookah Lounge, we had to provide it out of our budget. If we needed a new fax line, that would be $600 payable to IT, thank you very much.

Over the years we were “upgraded” many times to newer, smaller, less convenient cell phones, until eventually I believe that, in the interest of saving money, the college was buying Barbie® and GI Joe® brand toy phones from Toys ‘R’ Us®, with service from Bob’s Screen Door and Cell Phone Company with Towers in Three Counties (Not Including Yours)™. We could stand on the roof of the four-story building under a clear blue sky with 20 miles of visibility in all directions and not snag a reliable cell signal.

On the whole, cell phones were a blessing to the field crew. At least when they rang we could instantly bark at the “ladies” in the office… and get a quick reprimand from our boss for doing it. Just one reprimand and I wisely switched to decaf… for a whole entire week. ~MW



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