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.