When I answered the phone there was a slight delay, the kind you recognize as a computer-dialed number, then a real person picked up.

When the lady's voice came on, I assumed it was somebody trying to sell me something I didn't want.

Instead, a timid voice said she represented a health organization and asked if I would participate in a survey. I hesitated. My wife was just putting the finishing touches on dinner.

So I gave her my best off-putting tone that says I'd really rather not.

Without hesitating, she forged ahead. It would take only a few minutes, she promised, and concerned important health issues.

I stepped onto the back porch, motioned to my wife that I'd be right back, and said, sure, why not.

Don't hang up

I decided to talk to this lady because she sounded nice, kind of sad, and there was something in her voice that told me not to hang up.

Once we established my age, sex and marital status, she asked me about flu shots, health care and demographics, which I dutifully answered.

Through the kitchen window, I saw my wife taking things off the stove.

But before I could beg out of the interview, the lady bore right into the next line of questions, as if to say please, please, don't hang up on me.

In my mind's eye, I saw her in a room filled with other ladies just like her, huddled in cubicles, reading well-worn scripts each time their phone line lit up.

There was even the ubiquitous reminder that our conversation might be recorded to ensure quality control. Big Brother was obviously listening.

Suddenly I felt this call meant more to her than to me. I sensed that she really needed this job. And that my staying on the line might help her keep it.

The next call

Step by step, we went through the questions. Once I got confused and had to backtrack. It was starting to take a while.

By now my wife was pacing. That's when I asked the lady how much longer it would take. Just a few more questions, she said, her voice begging me not to quit on her.

I didn't. I couldn't.

In today's economy, every job, even the most tedious, is important. I knew nothing of this woman's life, but suspected she was underemployed, as many people are today.

When we finished she thanked me for my patience. I said no problem, then went inside to ask my wife's forgiveness.

Dinner was cold, but salvageable. And somewhere, a nice lady with a sad voice is making the next call, and the next, and the next, until her shift, or this painful recession, finally ends.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598. To read previous columns, go to post andcourier.com/burger.