5:45 to 6:30: Answering machine.
6:30 to 7:15: Kids screaming.
7:15 to 8:30: "We're in the middle of dinner."
8:30 to 9:45: Answering machine.
As soon as I got half a sentence into my spiel, about 25 percent of the people simply hung up on me. Amazingly, an equal number said this wasn't a good time but agreed I could call back. One woman said, "Natalie, I can't talk now because …" I didn't hear her reason because I was too busy wondering, "Who the hell is Natalie?"
I began to feel a little like I was playing the slots in Atlantic City: I had entered a timeless zone where I engaged in a repetitive task hoping for a big score. Finally, a hit. An elderly woman didn't hang up when I kept talking. I ran into trouble on one of the first questions, however. She claimed to be a registered voter but was not a Democrat or Republican and wasn't sure what an independent was. I was about to hit "Don't Know" when supervisor Y—who had been listening in—came running over to my cubicle and whispered furiously that I had to pin her down. However, all I could do was repeat the question on the screen in front of me because I was expressly forbidden to deviate from the script. The woman finally agreed she was an independent.
The supervisors were constantly active. We could see by the lights on our phone consoles that they were listening in, and at any slip, they were by our side. When my neighbor said to someone who didn't immediately hang up on her, "Would you like to participate in the survey?" supervisor X came running over. "Never, never ask them if they want to continue. They'll say, 'no.' It's like throwing raw meat to wolves."
My next night at work was the final session for the mayoral race. Although the first night we had been instructed to try to get men to answer the survey ("It's harder to get males, women are used to connecting more," explained Y), tonight we needed only women. My request to talk to the youngest woman in the house—people who agree to be interviewed tend to be old—yielded responses from the rueful to the outraged. One man said, "There's no female in this house. I wish there was." Another replied, "I've got a 44-year-old, a 45-year-old, and a 69-year-old. None of them are here. I'm microwaving my own dinner!"
Around 8, I went to the conference room for my 15-minute break. I sat down next to a plump 50-ish woman who had her dinner laid out on the table: six varieties of candy bars. She told me that she had been moonlighting at Annoy for two years. She had a full-time day job with a local government. "I've worked two jobs my whole life," she said. "I only sleep three and a half hours a night." I let my dinner break run to 19 minutes and when I returned to the computer to punch in, it admonished me, "You're late! Please be on time."
Over the course of the two nights, I dialed 210 phone numbers and completed five interviews. When I left work, one of the questions on the survey seemed apt. I realized I felt, "c) somewhat unsafe" walking home at night. I hailed a cab. The ride took about three minutes and cost $4, in other words, 40 minutes of dialing.
Night 3 I was assigned to the dreaded, "Will You Be Prepared When You Retire" survey—a look at how people earning more than $150,000 are saving for their retirement. The inherent problem in the survey was that it required persuading people making more than $150,000 to answer a 30-question survey on their financial dealings from a stranger making minimum wage. And recently, said Y, shaking her head, the company paying for the survey decided they wanted 900 completed interviews instead of 600.