Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The One Book B.S. Degree

  One of the most crucial skills of a TV news reporter is knowing how to BS.  For the next few weeks I thought I'd share some examples of how TO... and how NOT TO BS. 
We'll start with something I call the "Distribute the Power" method.  This happened to me about 10 years ago:

     I stood impatiently in the long line at Nashville Electric Service and quickly decided I didn’t fit into this festival of freaks.  There was a woman wearing a halter top she was about to pop out of (if you know what I mean), with two snotty-nosed children who whined incessantly.  Another, rather large woman sat in one of those motorized chairs, gossiping with what I presumed to be her adult daughter.   As she zigzagged through the maze of ropes set up to herd people to the counter, I wondered if she might roll over someone’s toe and worried it might be mine. 

     The men, many of them in dirty work shirts, had apparently stopped by on their lunch breaks to pay their past due bills.   Despite my certainty that I was the only sophisticated island in what appeared at the moment to be an ocean of rednecks, there I was in the same (bass) boat as them.  None of us had paid our past due electric bills.  All of us held cut-off notices in our hands and were desperate to keep the current coming to our houses.

     When people finally reached the counter there wasn’t much privacy.  The clerk sat behind a thick wall of glass and talked through a small hole about three inches wide.  For some reason, that made people on my side of the counter feel they had to speak louder.  Some of them even shouted to ensure the clerk heard them.  The rest of us could hear them, too… excuse after lame excuse about why they hadn’t paid their bill; why they couldn’t afford to pay the minimum amount needed to keep their electricity on; and why Nashville Electric Service should make an exception for them until they could pay.  One man insisted his wife had mailed their payment and that NES just hadn’t yet received the check. 

     “Mam,” he said, “the check should be here any time.”
     “I’m sorry,” explained the obviously weary clerk who by now must have heard every imaginable excuse known to humankind.  “If $96.32 isn’t posted to your account by the time this office closes today, we will have to interrupt your service.  How much can you pay, today?”
     “I can’t pay anything today.  I don’t get paid until Friday.”
     “Well sir, you must pay $96.32 to keep your service connected.”
      The line had grown even longer and everyone was becoming impatient with this man’s endless excuse.  Never mind that most of us would present similar unbelievable stories when we finally reached the front of the line which by now seemed akin to climbing Mount Everest.

     “Mam, I don’t have the money to pay anything today.  Can you give me till Friday.  That’s just two days, Mam.”
     “Sir, why don’t you write me a check for the amount your wife sent the payment for,” she offered.  “And I will note your account so that when we receive her check we won’t deposit it.”           “Mam,” he snapped, clearly agitated now.  “I just told you, I don’t get paid till Friday.”
     “I understand sir, but if your wife mailed a check and we’ve yet to receive it, the money should still be in your account, right?”
     You could feel a sort of tension start at the head of the line and snake its way back, setting the butterflies aflutter in all our stomachs.  
     As that man stomped away from the counter, firing off a machine gun round of obscenities, a hush fell on the busy room.   Everyone was obviously thinking of how to polish up their own turd of a tale in hopes the clerk wouldn’t see through it as easily as she’d seen through his.    

     “May I help the next person in line,” the clerk called.
     And yet another nervous soul, desperate to avoid the impending darkness stepped to the counter.     And on it went.  On and on and on…
     A woman claimed she paid her bill at that very counter the week before and that NES obviously had an accounting problem.   “The way ya’ll screw up, no wonder this line is so long,” she snarled.
     Another woman, immaculately dressed and sure to impress the clerk, I figured, claimed someone had burglarized her house recently.
     “I had the money for all my bills laid out on the dining table and they stole every penny of it.”
     “I’m sorry to hear that.”  The clerk softly smiled at her before offering a solution.  “I’ll tell you what, Mam,” she suggested.  “Bring us a copy of the police report and I can hold your account a few more days until you can come up with the money.”
     “What police report,” the woman asked.
     Another one BUSTED!!!  That woman may have dressed smartly but smart she clearly wasn’t!
     As I inched closer to the front of the line, I began to realize something about the clerk.  All day people pushed her buttons, lied to her and treated her like she was personally responsible for their misfortune.
I started to wonder what her life must be like away from work.  “I’ll bet she has children,” I mentally assumed.  “I probably make more money than she does and don’t take near as much lip for it.  She doesn’t make the rules about when to cut off someone’s electricity.  She simply has to enforce them.”                    
     Then and there I decided, that when I took my position at that head of the line, I was going to treat her like a heroine.  Rather than blame her for not bending the rules in my favor, I vowed I would make her feel like she had the power to help me. 

  “May I help the next person in line?” the clerk called. 
     And there I was, face to face with her, hoping not to look as stupid as the dozens of dumb asses she’d dealt with before me. 
     “Good afternoon.”  I plastered my best plastic smile across my flush face and hoped I didn’t look as desperate as I felt.
     “Chris Tatum”
     “What’s the address on your account, Mr. Tatum?”
      I told her.  She studied her computer screen for several seconds. 
     “Mr. Tatum, I show your account is 60 days past due,” she said.  “How can I help you today?”
     “Well mam, I knew I was late with this month’s bill,”  I explained.  “But I didn’t realize I hadn’t paid last month’s either.” 

     It was a lie.  Money had been tight for a few months at my house.  I wondered if she could tell I was lying.
     Her silence made me even more jittery as she continued to study my account on her screen.
     “Bless your heart,” I suddenly blurted out, even surprising myself.  “I would not want your job.”
     Where the hell did that come from???
     “You have the patience of Job,” I said, hoping to make sense of my last utterance.  “I can’t believe people think they have the right to speak to you the way they do.  You’re just doing your job.” 
     “This is a good day,” she said, looking up and actually smiling at me.   “You wouldn’t believe the names I’ve been called.  And the language people use these days.”
     “I would’ve lost my cool long ago,” I told her.
     “I just say a prayer every morning before we open,” she explained, still smiling.  “I ask God to help me not to take it personally when people talk to me that way.”    
     I could tell she was glad, if only for a couple of minutes, that someone had shown her compassion.  Honestly, I wasn’t feeling that compassionate.  I just didn’t want my electricity turned off.
     “This cut-off notice says I have until the end of the day to pay the past due amount.  I don’t get paid until Friday, Mam.  Is there anything you can to do help me?”  I wanted to put the power in her hands.

     Again, she studied her screen a moment.

     “You say you get paid Friday, Mr. Tatum?”  She was so pleasant now that it was as if a new person – someone who hadn’t endured the headaches I had personally watched her endure – had  sat down on the other side of the glass.
      “What time can you pay on Friday?”
     “First thing Friday morning,” I replied, sensing she might be about to work with me.
     “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Tatum.  I’ll put a note on your account that you’ll pay first thing Friday morning.  That way they won’t disconnect your service before then.  You have a nice day.”
     I thanked her and turned to walk away, still stunned at how I had managed to do what everyone in line ahead of me couldn’t.  I had convinced the woman who had seemed calloused to countless other customers, to make an exception for me.  I would have the chance to pay my electric bill before they cut me off despite the fact that it was already two months past due.  By making that woman feel she had the power to help me, I avoided a power outage at home.


  1. ... Its always been my philosophy , " Do unto others as you would like them to do to you! " For you, Chris, you exempliphied overwhelming hinesty and kindness , and, in return, you made this lady feel " respected ! " She them re -paid your act of kindness ! Doesn't get any better than that ! Take care, my friend !

  2. This was an example of the Chris I know...and it makes me proud. I believe that everyone should be given an opportunity to work in a public service situation immediately after graduation from high school. The world would be a lot easier.....and there would be more appreciation of humanity..maybe end a little narcissism? I am proud of you my friend.

  3. Aroma Therapy! What a SNEAK! But, it worked ! I once blamed my youngest daughter for the " smell " that filtered the hallway leading to her and her brother's room! I insisted that she would miss " Prom " because of her REPEATED actions and stay home and " learn a lesson! " She cried for days upon end, until, just days before the big event, her brother gathered us and suggested that ... " we ALL pitch in to help ! " Sometimes it takes the " cross to fall on the wrong shoulder for the RIGHT person to learn a lesson! " Kind of like Christianity ... Jesus carried an unworthy cross to free the guilty ! " Have a terrific weekend, Chris!

  4. I like you Chris, I like the perception you view the world with and how you convey it to the rest of the world. A talent that is few and far between. A word artist, I consider myself a word artist as well. Just undisciplined on this side due to fbs and fibro and such. But I do appreciate your writing and tales or tails that you talk about. Kudos to you Chris...