At 9:20 am on a crisp, cold Saturday morning in February, three twenty-something young women in tight black jeans and sweaters sat at old-fashioned metal-framed office desks in an overheated New York City office, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. Above them—either side of a cork notice board with multi-colored flyers—the 12 steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous are framed behind glass. A man in his 50’s with short white hair sat at another desk, the ‘hospital desk’, faces the glass front door of Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ New York Inter-Group, or central office. Nearby, framed photos of the founders of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, hang above the snack table. On each desk binders full of the updated directory of New York’s AA meetings and an analogue phone with nine phone lines. It was a slow morning so the women ate soup and bagels as they waited for the phones to ring.
Caitlin a tall, rail-thin girl with a brown bob, was about to publish her first non-fiction essay on a well-known womens’ magazine website. As the story went live, the girls gathered excitedly around Caitlin’s desk and read bits aloud to each other from their IPhones.
“Oh! I love that you said, ‘compare and despair.’” Said Jane.
(‘Compare and despair’‑ an AA staple, sort of Schadenfreude in reverse.)
“Yeah, I know it’s a cliché,” said Caitlin, “but to someone who doesn’t know AA, it probably sounds really original.”
When the phones rang, they snapped up the old fashioned receivers. With gentle soothing tones they expertly dispatched lost and lonely alcoholics to meetings around New York City’s five boroughs and parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island before slipping back into their whiplash, vocal-fried conversation.
One of the other girls, Jane, answered the phone to a woman calling from a payphone in Orlando, Florida. The caller was lost, looking for a meeting room somewhere in a hospital. AA in NY doesn’t carry meeting directories for other areas—every state has their own Inter-Groups—but often callers find NY’s Inter-Group phone number online. And on the weekend, calls are forwarded from AA’s World Services Office. Caitlin opened her Mac and she Googled the phone number for Florida’s AA Inter-Group.
The man was sat at the hospital desk has been answering phones at Intergroup for years. Chris D giggled with persistent good humor as he chatted with people in the room. His first call that morning, was from a man who said Charles Manson had died.
“Can I help you get to a meeting?” Said Chris.
“I know where I’m going.” Said the caller and hung up.
It’s like that sometimes, just people who have lost their minds calling in. Perhaps some sort of muscle memory kicks in between dawn and the first drink and they find themselves picking up the phone and dialing Inter-Group’s number, without really knowing why.
Chris D got to his first meeting after calling AA on March 5th 1996.
“It was the first day I’d gone without a drink in…forever.” He said, “and he [the phone volunteer] was so jolly and friendly I wanted to wring his neck!”
The next time he called AA was eight years later. Chris was sober, he’d been going to meetings steadily ever since that first call.
“I was angrier then than I was when I was drinking! I was holding on to things, so many resentments. I deleted all my AA names from my phone. Nobody talked to me anyway I thought, and I was stood in front of a bar. Nobody would know If drank.” He said.
“But I stopped, took a deep breath, and I called Inter-Group and they gave me the address of a meeting in my neighborhood.”
Inter-Group was Chris’s lifeline every time he was desperate.
“At ten years sober, I was doing better, I realized how much I’d been given and I wanted to give something back. So I started answering the phones myself.”
When a volunteer comes into Inter-Group to answer phones, they normally do a 4-hour shift. After they sign in and check the meetings board for any temporary changes or cancelations to AA meetings, they take a seat at one of the five desks with the meetings book, a volunteer hand-book, a pen and paper and of course, a phone. The meetings aren’t computerized—there’s no, “dial 1 for Manhattan meetings, 2 for meetings in the Bronx…” Though NY Intergroup has a meetings’ directory on its website.
“There should always be a voice at the other end of the line.” Said Chris.
“Bill [Bill Wilson, one of the two founders of AA] tried on his own for years to get sober until he met Dr. Bob, another drunk. An alcoholic has one thing in common with another alcoholic—an ability to relate. A computer can’t relate.”
When someone calls in, the volunteer picks up and helps the alcoholic get to a meeting by looking through their binder. Sometimes a caller will have other questions. They may want the number for Spanish speaking meetings, or special interest meetings with a focus on, say, transgender issues. They might be seeking help for someone they know, in that case they are given the number for Al-Anon the 12-step organization for people trying to cope with alcoholics in their lives. This may seem unhelpful, but in accordance with AA traditions, the alcoholic has to admit they have a problem and ask for help themselves. And of course they may have decided they have a problem with alcohol and need someone to talk to.
The desk facing the door designated ‘the hospital desk’ is often where the volunteer with the most experience sits. It maintains its name, though is rarely used for its original purpose; finding beds for people who need to detox. Now hospitals themselves handle those calls, and this desk has become a helpdesk for the other volunteers in the room needing assistance with calls they don’t know what do with. Sometimes people call in who are so bewildered and desperate they don’t know what they want.
“Once I watched a volunteer take a call and her face went sheet white.” Said Chris. “So I went over to her and passed her a note: ‘Topic?’ She wrote ‘S-u-i-c-i-d-e.’”
Volunteers aren’t trained for a crisis call like this.
“I wrote another note,” said Chris, “use what you know from your program’. The volunteer and the caller talked for a while and then agreed to let us call 911 to get her immediate help.”
“Maybe I’m the geek, but… When the phones are going nuts there’s lots of action like when the website went down, I sit there with a smile on my face.”
When Caitlin, the website sensation, left early for a friend’s wedding dress appointment, the girls gathered around a desk and gossiped about and ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s Instagram. The call rate dropped to a trickle and we all slipped into a reverie.
The phone rang.
Like gunfighters they grabbed at the receivers. Chris was the quickest on the draw.
“AA, can I help you?”
“What time’s the Superbowl?” Said a gruff voice.
“This is AA.” Said Chris.
“What channel is it on?” The caller said.
Chris asked people the room, no one seemed to know.
“I think it’s on CBS?” Said Chris.
“Did you know Charles Manson died?”
First Published at Thefix.com