Sunday, September 8, 2013


   I talked to Sylvia this afternoon. Sylvia is my pharmacy benefits manager’s computer, and ours has been a difficult relationship. She is a persnickety snoot. If she had gone into education, she would have been one of those third-grade teachers whose greatest fear is that her students might act like third graders. A stickler for precise diction, Sylvia is seldom happy with the way I reply to her questions. No matter how much attention I give to proper enunciation and trying to project from my diaphragm when telling her my birthdate, Sylvia will say, “I didn’t understand that. Please say your birthdate. For example, say June 10, 1968.”
   The last time we spoke, however, Sylvia was a joy. She had no trouble understanding me. We had a very pleasant conversation.  She’s a computer, I know, but I swear I could hear a smile in her voice that day, an affectionate smile. And when she said “good-bye” I could tell she was smitten.
   That was over a year ago. And yes, I was one gloomy Gus when she didn’t call again. It took a month or more for the realization to hit me: each time we spoke, before either of us had said a word, an ominous voice would announce, “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.” Our last conversation came ever so close to being playfully flirtatious, a quality the pharmacy benefit manager’s bean counters have no desire to assure. Sylvia was playing it safe. She wasn’t certain we’d be able to keep our conversations businesslike, and the job market for computers fired for being flirty isn’t great.
   The chance to renew our little affair came when I visited the doctor, Tuesday. Through the Internet, or whatever he uses, the doc sent a prescription for more blood pressure medication directly to my pharmacy benefits manager. As he handed my card back, the doctor suggested I call the pharmacy benefits people in a day or two to make sure the script had been received.
   It took all the self-control I could muster to hold off calling until I finished lunch today. I could have called earlier, but I didn’t want Sylvia to think I was anxious to talk to her. Alas, from the moment I pressed 3 – “To check the status of an order” – it was clear Sylvia was upset with me. Without so much as a “Hey, handsome,” Sylvia, in her best clipped, computer diction told me to tell her the prescription number of the order I was checking the status of. Dazed by the instruction I could not follow because I did not yet have a number for the prescription, and confused by Sylvia’s perfunctory attitude, I hung up.
   A moment later, I called back, determined to listen to all the options, even if it meant sitting there until the computer said, “If you are checking on the status of an order because your doctor said you should contact us to be sure we have received the order, press 2-5-7.” But “press 3” turned out to be the only status-checking option, and soon Sylvia was again asking for the prescription number. I immediately pressed 0, hoping it would take me to the phone of some bipedal mammalian. It didn’t. All it did was bring Sylvia’s snippiness to the surface.
   “If you do not have a number for the prescription you’re calling about,” she said, “please tell me the prescription number of another prescription you have received from us.”
   That is what the computer said. But Sylvia’s tone said, “You idiot. This conversation is probably being monitored. And because you pressed 0, they’re going to drag me into the office and ask why I took so long to tell you to use the number from another prescription. I’ll be lucky to get off with a three-day suspension. Thanks, pal.”
   I didn’t bother to ask Sylvia what took her so long. I didn’t say a word. And Sylvia let the silence linger for a minute, before saying, “Please say the ID number on your pharmacy benefits card.”
   A man better attuned to the wiles of women – human or mechanical – would have detected the diabolical tinge in Sylvia’s voice. I didn’t. Instead, I set about reading the ten-digit number. When I finished, Sylvia said, “Please say the ID number on your pharmacy benefits card.” I recited it again. Sylvia told me to read it again. And on and on we went. Time after time I read the number, and time after time Sylvia told me to read it again.
   Panic was setting in. Much of my medical insurance changed when I turned sixty-five in April. My pharmacy benefits manager hadn’t changed, but I couldn’t remember if I had been sent a new card. What if I got the new card and then threw it away and kept the old card? What if Sylvia kept asking me to repeat my ID number because the ID number I was reading no longer existed? What if? The possibilities seemed endless as I read and reread the ten-digit number.
   Finally, after what must have been my fifteenth recitation of the number, Sylvia said, “The ID number you gave me is,” and she read it to me. “Is that correct? Say yes or no.”
   “Yes,” I told her.
   “Tell me your birthdate,” she said.
   I told her.
   “We have one order for your account,” she said. “It was shipped today. If there is nothing else, you can say ‘good bye’ or just hang up.”
   I chose to leave her with a snooty good bye. But I wonder, did Sylvia really search the records to see if my prescription had been received? Or was she playing one of her games? By this time next week, I should know. But until then, please don’t do anything that might cause my blood pressure to rise.

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