I had a somewhat disturbing experience in New York last night. I was walking home along 24th street from the PATH train when I walked by an abandoned open leather bag on the sidewalk, under a phone booth. It looked empty, but I started having visions of watching some horror story on the Ten O'Clock news (not that I actually watch the Ten O'Clock news, but anyway). In other words, I decided to report it as a suspicious package. "If you see something, say something", right? Since I was reasonably sure it wasn't an emergency, I called 311 instead of 911. I got a surly operator who eventually transferred me to 911 when she figured out what I was trying to tell her (in fairness, I was still walking, and it may have been hard for her to hear me). My exchange with the 911 operator (who I didn't really want to speak to in the first place) was priceless:
I told her that I saw what seemed to be an abandoned, empty bag on the northwest corner of Park and 24th street, under a phone booth. Simple, right? First they had to ask me what was so suspicious about an empty bag. Fair enough, I said, it *looked* empty but you never know. Then the real fun started - "the corner of E24th and Park is an invalid address." Ummmm... no, it isn't - I just walked by there. "Can you give us another address as a reference point?" No, I'm not there anymore (I was in a rush - I couldn't stick around). "Well, it's invalid." After a few more minutes of this, she finally decided to end it, mercifully. "Would you like to leave your name and number for follow-up purposes?" What I thought was, "Hell, no." What I said was, "Well, I don't really have anything else to add to what I said. I'm just reporting what I saw." "Ok, thank you, sir." *Click*
There are a few things wrong here. One is that it's a huge pain in the ass to be a good citizen (or what I thought was being a good citizen - maybe I'm wrong). I didn't want to tie up 911's lines, but I ended being forced to anyway. And I got the feeling I was "imposing" the whole time I was on the line - like I was asking them for a favor or something. I had to repeat the same exact information to both operators. So far, not too surprising, although annoying. But the worst part is that the 911 operator couldn't seem to do anything without entering the address into some database. Maybe the street or avenue there has a different name - street names and avenues change a lot in Manhattan. Sometimes they're named after a famous person for a stretch, or if they are adjacent to a park, they take on the park's name for a bit (4th Street becomes Washington Square South, for example). Does the 911 system take into account that people may not know the precise street/avenue combinations at that point? It would be horrible to hear that a tourist between 7th Street and 9th Street on 2nd Avenue didn't get help because they said "8th Street" and not "St. Marks Place".
Anyway, the whole experience left me disillusioned and disappointed. It was an unfortunate case of "no good deed goes unpunished". I'm tempted to think twice about the next time I make a call like that (although I would still do it again, and urge my readers to do the same). This isn't a case of whining about bad customer service, which I've done here. This is an example of how New York still doesn't seem to entirely have its act together when it comes to these things. In Israel, this whole thing would have been taken much more seriously.
Was I right to report this? Comments welcome :-)