When we learned from one of our university contacts that the First Lady, Michelle Obama, was coming to town as part of the Chicago Food Summit, and that there might be a joint appearance between with her and Mayor Emanuel, we were thrilled, as we have always admired Mrs. Obama as the archetypal modern woman: educated, influential, and charismatic.
So imagine our surprise and chagrin as we traversed what seemed to be the rocky path towards obtaining press credentials for what we expected was a “no-brainer” as our younger friends call this type of effort.
We began on that 21st century engine, the internet, where we checked the City of Chicagohome page, replete with pictures of our new mayor smiling, looking concerned, and attentive at a wide variety of events, and also a bundle of hope and energy.
Checking “press”, “press office”, “press releases” we found no mention of Mrs. Obama’s visit, or even a telephone number, only to call 3-1-1. With a slight shudder we thought of previous attempts to reach someone for more mundane matters, and remembered that we were met with long hold times, and some rather saucy ladies who could have done hand-to-hand combat with Saddam Hussein.
Not wishing for that type of encounter, we decided to try another route.
That brought us to the telephone number of Chicago Special Events, what could be more special than our city-bred first lady returning to town to make us all aware of the need for healthy living?
The telephone at that office was answered by a rather desultory sounding male voice who sounded wary, without even hearing what we had to say. After a brief description of our request came the following: “She is?” then “We don’t know anything about that, hang on” as we did we heard another voice exclaim, “Michelle is coming to town?”
Several minutes passed as we sipped our coffeehouse brew, and tapped our toes to an unheard melody; then some more minutes, then finally, “Oh, yes, ah, yeah, here we are” followed by a great shuffle of papers and a reading of a column by one of our colleagues at one of the city dailies. Loathe to interrupt, we felt pressed by time, to stop this earnest reading, by saying, “Oh, I have that, what I need to know is when, where, and how to get on the press list. The reply? “Ah, hang on”, this was then followed by, “Okay, ah, call this number she can help you”
We agreed and reached the voice mail of a female staffer who sounded unusually cheerful, but who gave us another option to call for the media. This we did, only to receive a voice mail, stating to call the press office – hmm, we thought; weren’t’ we referred to the press office?
We called, and somewhat later came the same cheerful voice stating that she couldn’t help us and to call a number for the press office. We thought why wasn’t that number listed on the web site?
Arming ourselves with biscotti – when stressed, reach for glucose – we called that number where we got another wary voice, this time female, barely audible, who stated, “Uh, we don’t really know, I am sure that she is, but we don’t know anything.”
Remembering that patience was a virtue that was probably not going to get us to the pearly gates, we paused, and stressed that we really wanted to cover the event, press conference, or perhaps even another outing that the first lady might make.
Now, snapping to attention, she offered to take our name, and publication, and then to our great surprise, queried, “So, are you trying to get press credentials?” We assured her that we were.
Skipping our workout, and proceeding to a rather tightly gripped cocktail, we remembered our time in Washington, where this type of response was the norm. But, surely, not in the good old Midwest with our much praised work ethic!
Well, then a few more phone calls to colleagues and city veterans; all who said pretty much nothing more than we already knew about Mrs. Obama’s visit.
Delving into our archives, we reached for our Washingtonphone book, then thought, oh my, those relentless bureaucrats will think that we’re all hicks out here on the prairie that can’t communicate; so red-faced we replaced our frayed and tattered address book.
So this morning refreshed, we decided to call the White House operators; after all, they are legendary for knowing everything. But, this too was problematic: my cell phone provider gives unwanted advertisements for everything from depilatories to duds, and trying to get the telpehone number for the White House, was like running a commercial gauntlet, as I endured offers for discounts on every imaginable product.
So, hand to fevered brow, we followed the instructions to say, or in this case shout, “Business” which promptly woke the baby sleeping next door, and her three year old brother.
Answering a loud knock we faced a far less irate young mother than we imagined who wanted us to sit the toddler while the baby was taken to the doctor. Full of relief we assented.
We reached the White House after several forceful buttons were pushed on our phone, in response to proffered voice prompts, we reached the White House comment line. How nice we thought; the president has organized that effort so well.
After telling the equally nice young man on the other end that we did not want to leave a comment, but wanted to reach Mrs. Obama’s office, we were asked, if we could hold for his supervisor. “A” for that, we thought remembering our time in a call center.
A minute or so later, an extremely young tremulous (had she not used Mr. Bell’s instrument before?) female voice came on the line voice wavering with fear, while we had visions of pigtails and pinafores.
After asking her name, so that we could address her properly, she told us, “Oh, I can’t give out personal information.” We parried with, “Well, then how can we address you?” She replied, “Oh, just call me Operator 24”!
Oh, my; we thought, this is not going to be a good day, as we saw our toddler make a bee-line for the porcelain bird perched on the side table.
Scooping him into our arms, we were reminded why God had not blessed us with our own children, and stated quite firmly, our, by now shop-worn, request. Operator 24 assured us that she would relay the request to the first lady’s office; but we felt compelled to remind her that we were going to have to get a return call, or email with enough time to climb into our blazer and tear across town to cover Mrs. Obama and Hizzoner. She assured us that she would, and took down the information, but then there was confusion over the last name G-R-A-N-T, I said, “Green?” she responded. Finally, in exasperation, we said, “No, dear, Grant like the president.” The ensuing pause suggested that American history is not taught as well as it used to be.
We decided to persevere and decided to try, yet again, all of the scribbled numbers to reach Mayor Emanuel’s press office.
By now it was about 8:30 a.m.and we felt that someone would be available to help us. After dialing the by now familiar pattern of numbers we reached a sleepy sounding young man, who reminded us of our fraternity brothers from the early ‘70’s as they made their way groggily across campus to morning classes.
We made our request, only to hear, “Yeah, I think so, but let me get my computer up.”
We waited, and waited some more, by this time the toddler decided it would be great fun to grab the phone to call Mommy. Click.
Luckily we got the young man back on the line who gave us a healthy yawn – ouch! – that was my ear – and after pressing a few more buttons gave us several times for Mrs. Obama’s appearance: 2:00 p.m., 2:30 p.m.and 2:45 p.m. We decided 2:00 p.m.might be safer, we felt, and were about to end the call when we asked the fateful question, “And where is the press conference?” We got an impatient answer, and then when we asked for the address we were told rather testily, “if we had one, I would have given it to you!’ Incredulous at both this impertinence, and ingnorance, we asked in total bafflement, “I’m surprised that all of this information is not readily available”, only to be reminded that had we been on “the list” we would have had it.
Not wanting the baby to hear old Anglo-Saxon oaths, we said that we had tried, and were promptly rung off, while we tried to bid this feckless fellow a good day.
Now, we are certainly not immune to having young people work on the public payroll, but we wondered, as we have before, why they don’t seem to get any training on phone etiquette.
But, by the time the toddler was back in his own abode, and we fired up our laptop to discover a kindly email, from the first lady’s office, regretably telling us that the deadline had passed for press credentials.
Known for our determination, we replied in an almost begging tone, ok, well it was begging only to be told “no.”
Well, no isn’t the worst word in the English language.
We were disappointed that we could not cover the first lady’s appearance, or elaborate her cause, because like many people we have made changes for our own health and encourage others to do the same.
Much like Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts in 1963 for the 1964 election, Mrs. Obama’s appearance while not political, can only help her husband keep the Oval Office in 2012, and with her combination of charm, intelligence, beauty and brains, we felt sure that she was a “WOW.”
Next time Mrs. Obama?