Thank You for Calling
– Nonfiction by Alida Thacher –
Honourable Mention in the Dreamers 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
It’s after 5 when I get the text. Hello! This is Peter from Miles4Migrants. I think I may have found a good match for your airline miles donation. Can I give you a call?
Like a prospective adoptive parent, I have been expecting/not expecting this message. I’d contacted a non-profit that works to relocate refugees and asylum seekers to and from countries all over the world. I have a bunch of airline miles expiring in 3 weeks, and I want to donate them.
“I have a couple of people,” Peter says on the phone. “They’re from Mexico. They were just released from ICE and need to fly from San Diego to Dallas tomorrow to reunite with an uncle.” He already has the flight picked out with the price.
“OK,” I say. I have plenty of miles to cover the trip. “Let me get on the website to see what we need to do.” I am already multitasking: signing in on my iPad, pulling up my account. I frown. “It won’t let me reserve a flight before Friday.”
“Friday’s too late,” Peter says. “They need to leave tomorrow.” What is the urgency? Do they only have one night’s lodging in San Diego? Will ICE deport them if they don’t leave the city within 24 hours? Peter doesn’t tell me, and I don’t ask.
“I’ll have to call the ticketing agency,” I say. “Hopefully they’ll book the right flight over the phone.”
“There should be a link to a secure site in your email now. It will give you all the information you need to book.”
I look. “Got it.” I open up the document.
“OK. Do you see their names listed?”
“Yes, yes, I see.”
“It’s vital that all the information you give them is spelled correctly, no numbers transposed. No mistakes or they will be turned away at the airport.”
“Got it,” I say again, though his cautions make me nervous.
“Under the contact information, you see your email is listed as the contact email, and someone else’s phone number is listed for the phone contact. Those are the contacts you have to use. When they send the ticket confirmation, it will be sent to your email address. Then you will forward it to us. Got it?”
“Got it,” I say.
“OK, I’ll be here all evening. Just text if you need anything.”
We hang up. I am on my own now. Will the mileage folks even pick up the phone? It is after business hours.
I put the phone on Speaker and dial the 800 number from travel office’s website. After about 5 rings, a human answers. She is the first rung of the bureaucracy, the keeper of my mileage points. It takes her about 10 minutes to find my account, total up my miles, and tell me all the regulations. Then with a cheery “Good luck,” she connects me to the ticketing agency. I am on hold for another 5 minutes, and then another human answers. I explain that I am working with a non-profit agency to book a flight for tomorrow. “Oh,” he says. “The airlines don’t let you book online for next day flights. Security, you know. But I should be able to help. Let me look at what’s available.”
“I’ve got a flight,” I say. I read off Peter’s document. “United Airlines, San Diego to Dallas/Fort Worth, departing 4:17 pm.”
There is a pause and a tap tap tap.
I look at the names on the form. Oh no. I quickly text Peter. Do you have the date of births? Not on the form.
He texts back. It should be on the form.
Oh goodness. That’s not good. There is a slight delay. X: 5/17/99. J: 11/23/88.
The ticket guy comes back on the line. “Here’s the flight,” he says. “And yes, there’s room.”
“Thanks, that’s great.“
“OK,” he says, “let’s start with the first traveler’s name.”
“Jorge.” I stumble. “Guerrero. Contreras. Sorry. My Spanish is very poor.”
He repeats back to me. “First name. J as in Juliet. O as in Oscar. R as in Romeo. G as in Golf. E as in Echo. Second name. G as in Golf. U as in Uniform.” The agent is quick, but the process feels arduous. No mistakes, I say to myself. No mistakes.
The dog nudges my leg to remind me it’s time for his dinner. I reach down and scratch his face. “In a minute,” I say.
The woman has four names. Her first name I can’t begin to pronounce. “I’ll spell it.” I say each letter of each name carefully, and he reads them back in his phonetic alphabet.
“X as in X-ray. I as in India. M as in Mike. E as in Echo. N as in November. A as in Alfa.”
Finally, we finish. Names, gender, birthdates all correctly typed in. He hits enter to get to the booking screen.
“Hmmm,” he says.
“I guess I don’t have permission for next day ticketing. I’ll have to send this ticket over to my supervisor.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no,” he says. “We do next day bookings all the time. I just can’t do it from my screen. Hold on. I’m transferring you now.”
I stuff the phone in my pocket and head to the kitchen. Music blares from my hip as I scoop up some kibble. It clatters into the dog’s bowl. He rushes over to devour it.
“Thank you for holding!” A cheery voice breaks in. “We appreciate your call and we’ll be with you just as soon as we can.” More blaring music.
I take the phone out of my pocket and sit down to text Peter on the iPad. I think this is going to work. They’re sending me to a supervisor for next day booking.
“Thank you for holding! We appreciate your call and we’ll be with you just as soon as we can.”
Peter texts back. Oh boy! That’s exciting
And…they just dropped the call.
It’s ok. I can do this job. I’ve had a career in bureaucracy. Patience. Persistence. Polite, friendly, firm.
I’ll try again.
I have to take the same route from the previous calls. This time, I begin each conversation with, “I was in the middle of booking two tickets for a flight tomorrow, they put me on hold, and then I got cut off.”
They were nice before, but they are even nicer now. “I’m so sorry that happened.” I lead the keeper of the points through finding my record. “You have to look it up by my name. I don’t have my account number. The last four of my credit card are 4937.”
He’s much quicker locating it this time. “OK, here you go. I’m transferring you to ticketing now.”
Ticketing picks up quickly. It’s a woman this time. “They told me I need a supervisor to book these tickets,” I say, “but when I was being transferred, I got cut off.”
“OK,” she said. “I’ll transfer you now. I’m going to put you on hold, but I promise your call won’t be dropped. I’ll be on the line with you. And I’ll check in every five to seven minutes to make sure you are still on the line.”
The hold message is the same blaring music and the same loud voice. “Thank you for holding! We appreciate your call and we’ll be with you just as soon as we can.”An endless loop. As promised, every so often there’s a click and the ticket agent breaks in. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“OK, you’re still on hold, but I will check back with you in five to seven minutes.”
She must have a timer since she breaks in with regularity.
These days in every direction I look, the world is falling apart. Fires and floods and extreme temperatures. A global pandemic. Almost 100 million refugees in the world seeking safe haven, fleeing climate, wars, poverty, and persecution. In my own town, there is a humanitarian crisis—thousands of people living on the streets in tents and broken-down campers and sleeping bags on the sidewalks. Teenagers shooting teenagers every night. Extremist groups attacking strangers.
Because of COVID, most of us are on lockdown, barely able to leave our homes, much less begin to work on any of these dire issues. And there is so much to be done.
Donating miles that I can’t use feels so paltry and passive. It’s certainly something I can give, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough. But here I am, working with Peter, to solve one big obstacle for two of those millions of migrants.
I clean out my emails. I look at my schedule for the week, then the month. I pay the electric bill. I start on a crossword puzzle.
“Are you still there?”
“I’m still here.”
I send Peter a text. I’ve been on hold for half an hour now, but they promise they’ll get to me.
I write my brother a birthday card. I change the month on my calendar. “Are you still there?”
I text Peter again. Still on hold, but they promise somebody’s going to answer sometime.
Oh wow. I respect your dedication!!
If this were for me, I’d hang up. But it sounds like we’ll be able to get those two to Dallas tomorrow when somebody finally picks up the phone.
40 minutes, 45 minutes, 50….
“Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“I really have to apologize to you. I just spoke to my supervisor, and she said I can make those reservations for you. I just need to go into manual mode on my system. So can I get the names of the passengers?”
I spell: “J as in jelly; O as in Oreo; R as in raspberry.” I don’t know the phonetic alphabet, so I am just making up the words. From the looks of my choices, it must be dinner time. I’m thinking about food.
She spells them back to me, rapid-fire. “J as in Juliet. O as in Oscar. R as in Romeo.” No mistakes, I remind myself. It’s critical there are no mistakes.
She reads back the letters of Ximena’s last name. “C as in Charlie. A as in Alfa. Z as in Zulu. E as in…”
I interrupt. “No,” I say. I think I sound calm. “It’s B as in Boy, not Z as in Zero.” The mistake is corrected.
I carefully pronounce the birth dates and the contact phone number. When she reads them back to me, they are correct. Everything is now entered, and she hits the submit button. The tickets are confirmed.
“Here are the confirmation number and the reservation number. You will receive an email with all the booking information soon.”
We hang up. I text Peter. Well, it’s booked, though I haven’t gotten the confirmation email yet, which makes me a little nervous. They weren’t very efficient tonight.
I text him again. The email just arrived. I’m forwarding it.
He texts back. I just looked, and it looks absolutely perfect!!
Alright, I’ve passed along the booking to our partner who will make sure they catch the flight tomorrow.
Their partner. The anonymous contact phone number.
It was so good of you to stick it out through all the holding to make their booking.
I’m happy for Jorge and Ximena!
I’m happy for them too! Because of you, they get to start their new life without a travel loan! Thanks so much. I look forward to booking many more flights with you in the coming weeks!
I’m wrung out. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Yes, I’ll do this again.
Going forward, if we receive any note or pictures from them after they fly, we’ll be sure to pass them on to you!
I don’t expect to ever see any note or pictures. This wasn’t that kind of transaction.
Two days later, I receive an email from United Airlines. “Tell Us About Your Flight to Dallas!” They made it. That’s all I need to know.
About the Author – Alida Thacher
Alida Thacher is the author of eight children’s books and many short stories. Her short fiction has received a Glimmertrain honorable mention; a Pushcart Prize nomination; and finalist selections in both the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest and the p:ear Portland Noir Flash Fiction Contest. She is the co-founder of PDX Writers, an organization offering writing workshops, editing, and coaching for writers.
Did you like this story by Alida Thacher? Checkout all our nonfiction stories.
**This story by Alida Thacher received an Honourable Mention in the 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
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