Empathy

“Kline’s Photography”

That was always how I answered the phone and no number of staff meetings or memos would make me bend to include my name in the introduction. The last thing I wanted was to identify myself prior to finding out the nature of the call.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kline is not available at this time but perhaps there is something I can help you with?”

Uh-oh….

“I would be happy to take a message for him, can you please tell me what this is in reference too?”

No, of course not, she just really needed to talk to Mr. Kline. Somewhere along the way, a rumor got started that Mr. Kline actually gives a fuck. Let’s clear that up right now. He doesn’t.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but due to the high number of solicitation calls, Mr. Kline will not return phone messages unless he knows what they are about.”

Special code for: He will not call you back just so you can chew his ass.

“Uh huh, yes, so you want me to tell him that the photographer at your daughter’s wedding did not get all the pictures you had envisioned?”

She had uttered the magic word, “disappointed” and also threw in another inflammatory phrase, “your photographer”, as if the person in question were a rabid dog that had jumped the fence and eaten the neighbor’s cat. “Your photographer took a dump right in the middle of the church and we’re a little disappointed.” Well now, them’s fightin’ words.

“Excuse me m’am, he’s not actually my photographer. I just work here.”

That was not the answer she was expecting but I said it so nicely that it threw her off balance. I spoke slowly, in my best cheerful monotone, a technique that had come to be known in the office as “the calm voice”. My co-workers knew, when they heard the calm voice, to put down what they were doing and gather around for the show.

“Can you tell me specifically what it is that you’re displeased about?”

By all means, please, do tell me the way in which my photographer made the unholy union of an unfortunate young man to your truffle snacking, biscuit kneed, cow faced daughter somehow less momentous.

“Oh I see, so what you’re telling me is that my photographer failed to “snap” a close up photo of the flower girl’s shoes that you personally spent hours gluing red sequins and silk carnations to and that this was the only photo you really wanted from the whole day. Is that correct?”

No, apparently there was more.

“So you’re also mad that there are more photos of the groom’s family than of your own? Yes…, yes, I understand, you’re not mad, you’re disappointed because the day was just so special and, I’m sorry, what else? Oh, it also pains you that the photos do not in any way resemble the samples you were shown in our studio and you thought you were hiring a professional. I would really like to help you get to the bottom of this issue, but since the photographer is not actually here, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions, just so I can try to understand what may have happened?”

I am not a musician, per se, I can’t tune a guitar by ear but I have perfect fucking pitch when it comes to voice diagnostics. While her accusatory tone gains momentum, reaching a frantic pitch, I can see her, clear as day; a heavy set cyclone of a woman who spends most afternoons watching court TV with a diet coke in one hand and a skinny menthol cigarette in the other. She has eye liner tattoos. Sunspots on her face and smoke lines circling her painted-on red lips, her personal motto is “flaunt it if you got it” and by that she thinks her mammoth tits are sexy enough to overshadow her back fat and she’s sporting a tube top to prove it. Aside from the time she spends flogging her husband like a trash digging chihuahua she rarely gets an opportunity to feel important. She’s got me on the line and now is her time to shine like the power tripping bovine that she is. By this point I have retrieved the file from the wedding and am reviewing the photographer’s notes.

“Ok, on the day of the wedding, was the bride ready on time?”

Photographer’s notes: Bride 45 min late, arrives with dress in bag, takes another 20 minutes to put it on. Flower girl’s parents do not deliver her to the church until 5 minutes before the ceremony. She is crying and says her feet hurt.

“No…, no, of course I’m not implying that anyone other than my photographer is at fault here. I just have to ask so I can have a accurate understanding of what happened. So, tell me, was the groom ready on time?”

Photographer’s notes: While waiting for the bride to arrive, shot all of groom’s photos, including extended family and friends from grade school.

“I understand that you paid for this and, by doing so, have elevated your family’s status to that of the utmost importance. If it would make you feel better, we could delete some photos of the groom’s family so that the distribution of images will be more equal. I would be more than happy to personally take care of this for you, just tell me which ones you would like me to remove…. Hello? Are you still there? I’m sorry, my phone cut out for a minute and I thought we got disconnected…. Oh ok, so you don’t want me to delete any images? Are you sure because I really think it would make it seem like there were more of photos of your family if there were less photos of the groom’s family…. I’m so sorry ma’am, apparently I’ve misunderstood you. Can you please tell me again what it is that you’re upset about? Oh, so what you’re really upset about is that you can see a parking lot in all the outdoor photos of the bride and groom together. Right, of course that would be upsetting and especially since the venue was so picturesque, what with mountains being right there and all.”

Photographer’s notes: Church is a brown corrugated steel building with NO landscaping and surrounded on all sides by power lines and parked cars. The minister has to yell to be heard over the drone of a window mount AC unit in the sanctuary. I can barely see the tops of the mountains over the apartment building across the street. Bride is complaining that it is too hot and that she wants me to hurry up. She is also sweating profusely and it is staining her dress.

“I certainly understand that you are heartbroken over the missing photos of the mountains. I’m not sure that I have personally ever been to your church. Is it housed in a portable building? Yes, I understand that this church is your “home” and that you married your 3rd husband there five dreadful years ago but what I’m getting at is does it have a trailer hitch??? Yes, I’ll hold.”

I hear her lighting a cigarette.

“Yes m’am, I understand that your soiree of failed marriages makes you an expert on weddings and I am certain that Mr. Kline would gladly fire the photographer who ruined your daughter’s special day… Oh, so that’s not what you had in mind? Tell me, how I can make this up to you then? You want a… a what now, a free album upgrade? But ma’am, you hate the photos so much I am afraid that if we give you more of them it will only cause you further distress…. No, I’m sorry, Mr. Kline is still not available to take your call. Listen, I feel so bad about how much the photos are upsetting you that I will just cut you a check for a full refund and you’ll never have to see them again. How’s that sound?”

This game of verbal badminton went on for quite a while. When I did finally hang up, being totally pleased with myself for having accomplished nothing but to further enrage the troll on the other end of the phone, my co-worker, Thomas, was staring at me. There is something wrong with Thomas. Anyone who gets creeped out by big foreheads could tell you that. Mr. Kline had hired him two weeks prior, without consulting me, in an attempt to impress his mistress who was a devout Christian woman and who also did not realize she was fucking a married man. Thomas, it seemed, had graduated from some bible college and this, Mr. Kline decided, qualified him to wrestle the lions. Being the new kid, Thomas did not yet understand the level of depravity that people will sink to in an attempt to get some free shit so it didn’t surprise me when he said “you’re not a very nice person, are you?” “That all depends on how you look at it.” I replied curtly. He was constantly on my nerves and that, coupled with being immune to sarcasm, meant that we did not communicate well. “All that lady wanted was for you to listen to her” he told me. “Fuck that” was my response. Then he said something I’ll never forget, he said exactly these words “the reason you don’t empathize with people is because you have no feelings.” Leave it to Thomas to completely misdiagnose the issue, like completing a jigsaw puzzle, image side down. I sat back in my chair and looked at him, not knowing what to say. While it was clearly to my benefit for him to think that, I couldn’t help but feel a little horrified. “Is that what you think of me?” I asked. He shrugged and went back to his usual routine of making avant garde sculptures out of paper clips and tape. I never told him it was empathy that killed my feelings in the first place.

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