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Stories from a travel agent

               By Jonathan Lee
After 130,000 conversations--all  ending with  "Have a  nice day
and thanks for calling" -- I think it's fair to say I'm a survivor.
I've made it through  all the calls from  adults who didn't know
the difference between a.m. and p.m., from mothers of military
recruits  who didn't trust their  little soldiers to  get it
right, from the woman  who called to get advice on how to handle
the man  who wanted to ride  inside the kennel with his dog so he
wouldn't have to pay for a seat, from the woman who wanted  to
know why she  had to  change clothes  on our flight between
Chicago and Washington (she was  told she'd have to make a  change
between the two cities) and from the man who asked if I'd like to
discuss the existential humanism that emanates from the soul of
Habeeb. In five  years,  I've  received  more than a  boot camp
education regarding the astonishing  lack of  awareness of  our
American  citizenry. This lack of awareness encompasses  every
region of the country,  economic status, ethnic background and
level of education. My battles have included everything from  a
man not knowing how to spell the name of the city he was from to
another not recognizing the name "Iowa" as being  a state, to
another who thought  he had to  apply for  a foreign passport to
fly to  West Virginia.  They are the enemy, and they are
everywhere. In  the  history  of  the  world,  there  has  never
been as  much communication and new things to learn as today.
Yet, after asking a woman from New York what city she wanted to go
to in Arizona, she asked,  "Oh... is it a big place?" I talked to
a woman  in Denver who had  never heard of Cincinnati,  a man in
Minneapolis who  didn't know there  was more than  one city in
the South ("wherever the South is"), a woman in Nashville who
asked,  "Instead of paying for your ticket,  can I just donate
that money to the  National Cancer Society?" and a man in Dallas
who tried to  pay for his ticket  by sticking quarters in the pay
phone he was calling from. I knew a full invasion was on the way
when, shortly after signing on, a man asked me if we flew to Exit
35 on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Then  a woman asked if we flew to
area code 304.  And I knew I had been shipped off to the front
when I was  asked, "When an airplane comes in, does  that mean
it's arriving or departing?" I remembered the strict training  I
had just received -- four weeks  of regimented classes on airline
codes, computer technology and telephone behavior -- and it
allowed for no means of retaliation. "Troops," we were told,
"it's a real  hell out there  and ya got  no defense.  You're
gonna hear things so silly you  can't even make 'em  up. You'll
try to explain  stuff to your friends  that you don't even
believe yourself, and just when you think you've heard it all,
someone will ask if then can get a  free roundtrip ticket  to
Europe by  reciting 'Mary Had  a Little Lamb.'" Well, Sarge was
right.  It wasn't long before I suffered a direct hit from a woman
who wanted to fly  to Hippopotamus, N.Y.  After assuring  her that
there was no such place, she became irate and said it was a big
city with a big airport.  I asked if Hippopotamus was near Albany
or  Syracuse. It wasn't.  Then I asked if it was near Buffalo.
"Buffalo," she said,  "I knew it was a big animal!" Then I crawled
out of my bunker long enough to be confronted by a man who tried
to catch our flight to Maconga.   I told him I'd never heard  of
Maconga and we certainly didn't fly to it.  But he insisted we did
and  to prove it showed me his ticket: Macon, GA. Now I've  done
nothing  during  my conversational confrontations to indicate
that I couldn't understand  English.   But  after  quoting  the
ROUNDTRIP fare the passenger JUST ASKED FOR he'll always ask:
"...Is  that ROUNDTRIP?" But I've survived to direct the lost,
correct the wrong, comfort the weary, teach  U.S.  geography
and  give  tutoring in the  spelling  and pronunciation of
American cities.  I have been told things like, "I can't go
stand-by for your flight because I'm in a wheelchair." I've been
asked such questions as: "I  have a connecting flight to
Knoxville.  Does  that mean the  plane sticks to something?"  And
once  a man  wanted to  go  to Illinois.  When I asked  what city
he wanted go  to in Illinois, he  said, "Cleveland, Ohio." After
130,000 little wars of varying degrees, I'm a wise old veteran of
the communication conflict  and can anticipate  with accuracy what
the next move "by them" will be.  Seventy-five percent won't have
anything  to write with  or  on.   Half  will have  not thought
about  when  they're returning.  A third won't know where they're
going.  A few won't care if they get back.  And James will be the
first name of half the men who call. But even if James doesn't
care if he gets to the city he never  heard of; even if he can't
spell, pronounce or remember what city he's returning to, he'll
get there  because I've worked  very hard to  make sure that  he
can.  Then with a click in the  phone, he'll become a part of my
past  and I'll be hoping that the next caller at least knows what
day it is. Oh, and James...  "Thanks for calling and have a nice
)From Travel Weekly September 16, 1985
Jonathan Lee is a Nashville, Tenn.-based reservations agent and
writer  of television commercial jingles.   This article
originally appeared in  the Washington Post.
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