Last summer, at four in the morning, I found myself on a beautiful Aegean island, in the dark bedroom of an Ionian villa, with moonlight fluttering in through sheer curtains that generously ushered a gentle, cooling wind towards me. I lay sprawled on the bed, head propped up, phone in hand, arguing with Keith from Bell Mobility on the company’s app about a $30 roaming charge. “I promise, Keith,” I plead with him. “I never once turned my data on while I was out of the country.” He replies in his little blue chatbox: “I hate paying bills too, but there’s nothing I can do.”
As I gaze upon the flurries of snow out the window of McLennan One, I remember this moment distinctly, and cherish it wholly. Keith and I chatted for a little over half an hour—learning together, growing together.
“Keith, surely this situation is ridiculous on your end, too. Be real with me, bro, don’t you think this is unreasonable?” I challenge him. “Let me talk to my supervisor,” he writes. By the end of our conversation, during which we navigated an extremely arbitrary web of company policy and unsolicited personal questions from my end, we found a way to solve the problem together and I was refunded.
I didn’t expect that Bell would ever be sympathetic to my confusion. Anyone who has lived in Canada knows that its monopolistic telecom companies can very swiftly drain someone of their will to live. I also didn’t know if Keith really couldn’t help, if he was talking to other Bell users while he was talking to me, or if his name was actually even Keith. But at that moment, I had unreasonably strong faith that he would guide me to justice. I was also proud of myself. Over chat, I managed to convince someone that an over-dramatic, stubborn, and faceless stranger was worth helping out.
Calling customer support centres, striking up conversations with strangers, and unexpectedly running into acquaintances have become activities that I eagerly look forward to. If a main door to a university building is locked for no reason, you might jokingly complain to a McGill security guard about how absurd you find it. It’s quite remarkable how quickly that can turn into the security guard telling you how he used to frequent a nudist social club that would get together on Thursday nights at the UQAM gym complex and how he loved to swim laps naked in the pool. If you get racially profiled at the U.S. border on your bus ride to New York, and a Québécoise lady and fellow passenger concerningly ask why they held you up, all you need is to express that it must be much worse on the Mexican side before she interjects: “No, but the Mexicans are the real terrorists.” The absurdity and irreplicability of such interactions with strangers—the awkward pauses, oversharing, and out-of-pocket remarks—make me feel more human.
Talking to someone like Keith can be dehumanizing on both ends. Monolithic institutions try to make us feel guilty for subjecting Keith to our complaints—that he’s just someone trying to do their job. And accountability is obscured along the chain of command. Keith might be numb to the unending customer dissatisfaction and has lost his sense of agency, of individuality. But once you ask someone their name, we remind each other that we’re more than preprogrammed dialogue.
I obtain a lot of satisfaction from engaging with people in this way. I hope that Keith found a little bit of strength so that we could each transcend these roles that we often prescribe to ourselves. On that blissful midsummer night in early July, as the sound of the waves hugging the southern Kefalonian coastline echoed towards me, I witnessed Keith’s ardent refusal to succumb to a narrative that wasn’t his. He became my hero that night.