August 3rd, 2010

I said "Traffic Conditions," not "Chinese Chicken Salad!!!"

I said "Traffic Conditions," not "Chinese Chicken Salad!!!"

For years, I've enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the Bay Area's 511, in both web and phone forms. There's the good old traffic map ( (a.k.a. the "hell checker," by sjh22a's humorous assessment), which I appreciate for its unrivaled ability to give me bad news in easy-to-read graphical form.

On the phone, it's more a case of pure frustration, since not only is it the same source of bad news, but it's conveyed through a rather aggravating speech comprehension bottleneck. That's especially true when I'm calling Mr. 511 on speakerphone while driving in traffic (which is when I need his input the most). I have broken new ground in exaggeratedly clear enunciation of terms like "Traffic Conditions" and "880 North," only to have Mr. 511 still issue any of a standard arsenal of apologies for not understanding me. Worst of all is when he mistakes one of my requests for something lacking even the slightest hint of phonetic resemblance, doesn't stop to confirm that he heard me right, and goes off on an uninterruptible tangent on something utterly unrelated to what I'm seeking, leaving me no recourse but to hang up and call back. Sometimes after several unsuccessful attempts at understanding my request, he has the nerve to hang up on me!

Imagine my surprise, then, when I randomly called 511 during one of my trips home to New York, just to see what would happen. I quickly learned that not only does NYS have its own 511 system, but it's the same voice! "Ack! I can't escape him!"

Well, it turns out there's a reason for that. After all these years, my curiosity on the matter finally reached critical mass while I happened to be sitting in front of a computer, and I Googled "voice of 511." Turns out a guy by the name of Bob Hesse was recruited for the job. Even more crazily, the 511 team came up with a detailed fictional persona for Hesse to try to channel while giving you an articulate description of the precise manner in which you're screwed.

I'll let the article tell the rest of the story:

Had I been conducting the interview, the one other thing I would have asked Hesse is whether he ever has trouble understanding himself...