Flash Fiction Friday: 311

Photo by Hack Capital on Unsplash.

I was listening to this episode of This American Life, “No Fair,” in which a preschool teacher offered her students a “tattle phone” (connected to nothing) to which they could report their many, many instances of unfairness.  My colleague with whom I was listening to it laughed and described 311, the number for non-emergency government services in New York City, as our version of the “tattle phone.”  So I ended up putting together this little piece about a 311 operator.  Enjoy!


Three One One

Hello, and thank you for calling 311 in New York City.  We’re here to help, but we cannot help you, not really.  You are about to be connected to Lena, a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t talked to her mother in a while and missed her student loan payment last month while wondering if she should go to law school.  Can Lena help you?  She’ll listen, absently, while sipping an iced marshmallow latte from Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner near her subway stop on Church Avenue.  The women who make the drinks there wear hijabs, and it’s Ramadan (alternate side parking regulations will be suspended for Eid al-Fitr; meter regulations remain in effect), and Lena feels badly for them, working all day around the too-sweet cold drinks and the pillowy doughnuts, even though it’s their choice to fast, to remember the less fortunate, like the quiet Chinese man who lives in the subway station and waits for Fatima and Noor to give him the day-old doughnuts every night.  Lena worries about him too.

Lena will try to help you.  But if this is an emergency, hang up, and dial nine-one-one, and may God have mercy on all of our souls.


—Three-one-one, this is Lena, how may I help you?


—Yes, my trash still hasn’t been picked up today.


—Okay.  Where are you?


—Rugby Road, Ditmas Park.


—What are you trying to get rid of that’s so urgent?  Is it that card from your lover, with a bluebird and sunflowers on it, telling you that you need to break up?  You don’t want your husband to see it, right?  What’s the exact address?  Just the trash, or the recyclables also?  Is it the diary you kept after the baby was born, where you thought you’d write sweet memories but instead recorded every time you thought about killing yourself when she cried?  Is it just your trash or is it your neighbors’ also?  Is it all the produce you bought at the farmers’ market when you thought you’d eat better, rotted as you ordered pizza once again—that is, has the compost pickup come?  Everything you own is waiting for you to be finished with it.  Would you like to know when and where you can drop off your textiles and scraps?  Textiles are what we call clothes or linens when they don’t fit us or the times anymore, grandmother’s lace tablecloth out of vogue in favor of a clean surface set with bamboo placemats.  Scraps are what we call food when it no longer nourishes, moldy or misshapen or the pits consuming the whole.


—I just want it gone.  I can’t stand looking at it anymore.


—I understand.




—Three-one-one, this is Lena, how may I help you?


—I think my building is haunted, okay?  Every night I hear footsteps on the stairs right outside my apartment, but if I go out in the hall to look, I don’t see nothing or no one.  Sometimes I hear soft singing, or laughter, and let me tell you, no one in this building sings.  Everyone in this building is tired from working two, three jobs to pay the goddamn rent our son of a bitch landlord keeps raising on us, and when we’re not working, we just want to sleep.  I don’t want to hear “Danny Boy” at all hours of the goddamn night.  I know the Irish all used to live here and I guess somebody got dead before he could see home again, but frankly, that’s not my problem, all right?  My mami is eighty-seven and she’s in the home over on Delancey.  You think she’s ever going to see Barranquitas again?






—So you have a noise complaint.



—Three-one-one, this is Lena, how may I help you?


—There are children playing out in the street, unsupervised. It’s getting dark and I don’t know who’s responsible for them or where they live.  I’m worried they’ll get hit by a car.


—Soon enough those same children will be out later, much later, perhaps some of them driving those same cars.  Some of them will drive for Uber to make money for themselves or their families.  Some of them will just drive all over the island looking for a stretch of road without too much traffic where they can feel free, like my grandfather driving out to the lake in the fifties.  They might find it on the Cross Island Parkway by ten or eleven o’clock at night.  There’s not too much going on out there by then.  Maybe they’ll be driving out to Jones Beach with a backseat full of friends, or just one in the passenger seat.  Maybe that’s the only way they’ll feel safe.


—It’s just that I don’t know who’s responsible for them.


Deliver them unto each other, I pray.

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