12 Secrets of 311 Operators


It may have lower stakes and fewer life-threatening emergencies than its big sister 911, but for the 20,870,131 New Yorkers who called 311 in 2014, it’s no less vital. In New York City’s 311 call centers, over 350 employees work tirelessly around the clock (you can reach a representative 24-7-365) to answer residents’ burning questions about everything from alternate side parking to a lack of heat in their homes to unwanted animal guests. We spoke with past and present 311 employees to get the 411 on one of the city’s greatest resources.

1. 311 call center representatives (CCRs) spend months training to take your calls.

Once hired (either by passing a civil service exam or participating in CUNY’s collaborative project with 311), CCRs spend four to 10 weeks learning the ropes. They don’t take calls during this time, but become masters of the vast database of New York City-approved resources at their disposal. CCRs use keywords to search the system, called Siebel, for ways to help direct callers to the departments that can best address their needs. As 311 Communications Director Shaleem Thompson told us, “We don’t offer advice to our customers. All the information we provide are approved content from City Agencies.”

During training, the CCRs also learn proper telephone etiquette, protocol, and what to do if the call takes a turn for the strange or serious.

2. There’s an “escalation line” for when things get out of hand.

A former 311 employee, who worked as a CCR for a year and a half, says that when calls venture into uncharted territory, they are patched through to what’s known as the “escalation line.” A common reason a CCR would ask the escalation line to take over is a lewd or “inappropriate” overture from the caller. In one instance, the former 311 CCR explains, a man called to say that his neighbors were having sex, and he could hear them through his apartment’s thin walls. “And he starts groaning and it’s just becoming clear what’s happening. And he’s like, ‘Will you stay on the line with me?’” the CCR says. “And I was like, ‘Escalation line!’ I hit the extension and patched them through.”

3. There are 58 different things you can say that will get you transferred to 911.

If a 311 CCR suspects an actual emergency, he or she is required to patch the caller through to 911. The service provides its representatives with a list of 58 items that, if mentioned by the caller, precipitate a mandatory transfer to 911. While some of the mandatory transfer items seem commonsensical (a report of abuse or harassment, an injury, or a suspected gas leak), some are a bit more head-scratching. Mentioning a “squeegee in progress,” “ticket scalping,” or “foul odor from unknown source” will get you patched through to 911.

Once a 311 CCR connects with 911, he or she remains on the line for the entirety of the call, acting as a witness as well as being available to answer any questions the 911 operator may have.

4. More calls come from Brooklyn than any other borough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York City’s most populated borough is responsible for the most calls to 311, claiming 31 percent of calls in 2014. Falling in line behind are Queens (23.3 percent), Manhattan (21.9 percent), the Bronx (18.4 percent), and Staten Island (5.4 percent).

5. CCRs take thousands of calls each day.

While 311 averages 50,000 calls a day, the number varies greatly depending on the weather, holidays, and service announcements, Thompson says. The 2014 record for most calls in a single day is 239,203. The most calls handled by a single representative in 2014 is a staggering 22,809.

6. Questions about alternate side parking dominate the phone lines.

Call center representatives agree that New Yorkers are more baffled by the complexities of alternate side parking than any other topic. Tahiem Tomlin, a call center rep for almost two years, says that other FAQs vary by season, with the winter being dominated by heating complaints and tax questions. Callers also often have questions about how to deal with parking tickets and what certain street signs mean. Unfortunately, the former 311 representative points out, CCRs aren’t allowed to give guidance on these topics; they’re not covered in the Siebel computer system.

7. Call center reps are scored on their call-taking abilities.

The CCRs have weekly review sessions with their supervisors, during which their calls are given scores based on quality and effectiveness as well as following protocol. Representatives gain points for things like using standard language (“Thank you for calling 311”), providing the correct information, handling the call in a timely manner, speaking with a courteous tone, and offering the 311 website. Call center reps also lose points for infractions or, if the mistake is deemed serious enough—like being rude, failing to transfer to 911, or providing information not found in the Siebel system—they can “fail a call.”

8. CCRs must remain professional at all times.

“I had a call come in, and it was from my dad,” Angelique Pantoja, a CCR for nearly five years, says. “I introduced myself and he says that he’s looking for bus and subway information. It took him a minute for him to realize it was my name, and he goes, ‘Is this Angelique? Is this my daughter?’ I responded by saying, ‘Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and gave him the information he wanted.”

9. The urban legends are true: A call to 311 proved there really are crocodiles in New York City.

Pantoja remembers one of the most surprising calls she’s ever gotten: A caller who claimed to have found a crocodile in her garage. “It was very interesting because I wasn’t sure if she meant a real crocodile or a fake one, or a little lizard and perhaps she was being a little dramatic,” Pantoja says. “But they confirmed that it was a real crocodile. They were doing something in their basement, and they said something moved.”

10. Call center reps save lives ...

While all emergencies are ultimately transferred to 911, the 311 call center reps are often the first point of contact for people reporting a crime or injury. “I helped break up a child prostitution ring operating out of Brooklyn and transferred the call to 911,” the former CCR we spoke with said. “The customer had called about two girls, and both were under 12 years old. The caller said the mother was selling her daughters to make ends meet.”

11. ... And truly want to help.

While calling 311 can at times be frustrating—the caller must sit through a standard introduction (which, we now know, earns the CCR points), the CCR is prohibited from providing answers to many questions, and the caller may ultimately be transferred to an unresponsive department—residents of New York can take solace in the fact that most CCRs sincerely want to help. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, CCRs worked long shifts in order to make sure New Yorkers had someone to call. With public transportation suspended for days, many representatives were driven to work in Department of Corrections busses—the kinds usually used to transport prisoners—after walking miles to the nearest bus stop.

“Even these hardened veterans, these city veterans who have been doing it for 20, 30 years, even they care,” a former representative says. “I think a lot of call takers just want the city to be able to expand its resources and help people in a more efficient way.”

12. Call center reps are not allowed to hang up the phone.

The former representative tells us that some of her most rewarding moments at 311 were spent speaking with people, often elderly, who were just looking for a friendly voice. “Sometimes they’ll just tell you about their life, and after that you’ll feel like you helped them unload a little bit.” she says. “Life is so hard in the city. I think people just like having some kind of 24-hour line where they can call and hear a human voice.”

The Criterion Collection
14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.


To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”


Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”


Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”


In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”


During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”


All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”


Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”


Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”


In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”


In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.


Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”


In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

6 Tips From Experts on How to Fake Loving a Gift You Hate

In this season of holiday giving, it's almost inevitable that you're going to get a gift you just don't like—and nobody wants to hurt another person's feelings when they went to the trouble of buying you a gift. So as you struggle to say thanks for that gaudy scarf from a beloved relative, or that stinky perfume from a well-meaning coworker, we bring you these tips from Jack Brown, a physician and body language expert from New York, and Alicia Sanders, a California-based acting coach with the conservatory program Starting Arts, for how to fake enjoyment—at least until you can exchange your gift at the store.


Your inner voice may be saying "No!" the moment you peel pack that paper, but there may be a hidden yes inside you somewhere that you can mine for.

Sanders explains that the key to successful acting "is finding the truth in your scene." She encourages her students to tap into a moment when they felt the emotion they are trying to convey, for authenticity. "So you get an ugly sweater with a hideous shape and a terrible image, but you think the color blue is not so bad. You can say, ‘This color blue is so beautiful,' because it's truthful," she explains. The more you can find a real truth to speak from, "the more convincing you can be."

By opening with a grain of truth, you don't set yourself off on a chain of lies. "When you have to start to lie, that's when it's going to show through that you're an inexperienced actor, because you'll be more transparent," Sanders says.


However, faking joy runs deeper than just the words you speak. Sanders reminds us to think of what our hands are doing. "If you sit there statically, it feels like you're working too hard," she says.

Your hands can be a telltale giveaway that you don't really like a gift, according to Brown. People experiencing unhappy emotions tend to ball their hands into fists, tuck them against their bodies, or put them in their pockets. "If a person likes what they are getting, their arms and hands are going to go further out from the body, and tend to be more loose and relaxed," he says.

Similarly, we can reveal falsehood by touching our face or head, which often signals lying, anxiety, or discomfort, Brown says. People in these emotional states "tend to touch their face with one hand, and slowly. They might scratch near their eye, right in front of their ear, or their forehead."

Sanders suggests you put a hand on your chest or bring the gift closer to your body as a way of showing that you can stand to have it near you.


Indeed, the gift-giver is most likely going to be looking at your face when they assess your reaction, so this is the canvas upon which you must work your most convincing efforts at false gratitude.

While you may think a bright smile is the perfect way to fake joy, Brown says smiling convincingly when you're feeling the opposite is not as easy. "Most people aren't good at it," he says.

A fake smile is obvious to the onlooker. These usually start at the corners of the mouth—often showing both top and bottom teeth, he points out. A sincere smile almost always just shows your top teeth, and begins more from the mid-mouth. Another giveaway of a fake smile is tension in the mid-face: "If you see someone with mouth tension, where the mouth opening gets smaller, the person's got some anxiety there."


Smile with your eyes first, Brown advises. "Completely forget about your mouth," Brown instructs. "If you smile with your mouth first, you're absolutely going to mess up."

And be sure to make eye contact, which Sanders says is "crucial to convince someone that you like their present."

But keep in mind that there are degrees of appropriate eye contact if you want to look natural. "If the eye contact is too little or too much, it'll feel like it's not sincere," Brown says. You want to be sure to avoid a stare—which can feel "predatory or romantic," he explains. Instead, make "a kind of little zig-zagging motion that people have when they look around a face."


As you unwrap your unwanted gift and have a moment of unpleasant surprise, you may be tempted to reach for the simplest phrase, such as "awesome," which Brown calls "a one-word cliché" that tries to convey a happiness you don't really feel. Brown says this is a no-no, too: "If you use a cliché, your body language will parallel that."

Instead, eliminate canned words and phrases from your repertoire, he urges, "because then you'll think more about what you're going to say."

Aunt Suzie will also notice if your voice is strained or you have to clear your throat before choking out a "thanks." But how do you convincingly soften your tone of voice so that your words sound as authentic as they can?

Back to acting. Sanders suggests mining your own personal happy experiences for honest emotional content; you may be seeing an ugly sweater you'll never wear but thinking of those prized theater tickets you received another year.

Brown, meanwhile, recommends you think of your favorite comedians; they're good at improvisation, and are often laughing or smiling. "When you do that, you're getting yourself in a better emotional state," Brown says. "Or you can think about a funny time in your own personal life."

A mental rehearsal before you get a gift is a good idea too. Brown says you can imagine a gift that this person could realistically have gotten you and draw on the joy of that imagined gift instead.


If you aren't completely overwhelmed yet, keep in mind you must try to get these small communications by your eyes, mouth, hands, language, and tone in alignment with one another. Brown calls this "paralanguage."

"If they're not congruent, if they don't all line up, then you're not going to come across as sincere," Brown says.

If all of this advice has you contorting yourself into a state of confusion, Brown says that if you remember nothing else, just smile with your eyes. You might just fake it until you make it.


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