Tangential Tales: SSD Producer Harasses Widows For a Living

Last month, Ken & Andy were joined on stage by one of our more interesting guests in long while, Paul Lukas. Paul is a writer whose work has appeared in several laudable publications. He writes the Uni Watch column for ESPN.com, and also maintains a daily Uni Watch blog. He hosts the monthly Open Mic Show-and-Tell events at Cabinet in Brooklyn, performs as one half of the lecture/slideshow act the Forewords, and is the man behind the Permanent Record project.

While telling Andy & Ken about Permanent Record, Paul mentioned that he often had the unenviable task of cold-calling random people and telling them "Hey, I've got your grandmother's report card from 1931..." Some people responded positively to his calls. A few thought it was a scam. (I think Paul should start a separate blog where he allows the paranoid family members to explain their wildest theories for how he planned to con them with an 80 year old report card.)

It was during that discussion of cold calls that I got to thinking about my own experience with a similar sort of unwanted and baffling communication: the audiobook pronunciation call. While passionately working as Ken & Andy's humiliation assistant these past few years, I've been paying the bills with audiobook work. I'm currently freelance, but for more than 5 years I worked as an associate producer at one of the major publishing houses. It's occasionally glamorous work: fetching fancy sandwiches for hungry Broadway actors with credits from every iteration of the Law & Order franchise. But sometimes the job is simple: find the pronunciation for every quasi-Latin spell word in the latest Twilight-wannabe vampire porno.

Latin's easy. There's a guy you call for that. Arabic names in a book on terrorism? If they're infamous enough, you'll find them on Voice of America's pronunciation guide. The really hard ones are just slightly unusual names of ordinary Americans that could be pronounced any number of ways. Aaaaa or ahhhh? Emphasis could be natural on every syllable. Sometimes YouTube helps. But nothing beats hearing it from the horse's mouth. So I'd occasionally find myself calling up random people and asking "Hey... so how do you say your name?" But since I also have to be a clever jackass, I would occasionally claim to be calling a wrong number. Or just plain butcher someone's name to provoke them into correcting me.

After that UCB edition of Seven Second Delay I went up to Paul and told him I once got caught in a cold call that involved a confused widow of a forgotten minor league baseball player. Paul insisted that this story had to be published on the Internet. Fortunately, I made a transcription of the call shortly after the awkward encounter.

The audiobook was on a famous black ballplayer, a hall-of-famer, one of the greatest. At some point in his story he crossed paths with Clyde Sukeforth, the former player and scout who famously signed another great black ballplayer: Jackie Robinson. The director on this audiobook called me during the recording and said he wanted to be certain on how to pronounce "Sukeforth" (though unlike a lot of requests I would get, there doesn't seem to be much possibility for variation on "Sukeforth").
If I'm going to cold call someone, makes sense to try for the region or city where the real person or fictional character is from. So I loaded up some Internet white pages, searched Sukeforth in Maine (Clyde's home state), and called the first number listed. Here's the ensuing phone call:

  • PERSON: Hello?
  • ME: Hello, is this the Sukeforth residence?
  • PERSON: Hold on a second. (calling out) Alex, phone!
  • ALEXANDRA SUKEFORTH: Hi who is this?
  • ME: Hello, is this the Sukeforth residence? I’m sorry, did I say that right, Sukeforth?
  • AS: Well, I’m Alexandra Sukeforth, who are you?
  • ME: Oh, I’m sorry, wrong number, I was looking for Clyde Sukeforth.
  • AS: (now angry) Clyde Sukeforth died years ago!
  • ME: I’m sorry, actually, I was just trying to confirm the pronunciation of his name.
  • AS: What for!?
  • ME: It’s just an audiobook that mentions his name. But that’s all I needed. Happy Thanksgiving!
  • AS: Who the hell is this?!!?

I mistakenly told Paul Lukas that the call was to the widow of an unknown Trenton minor-leaguer, rather than a famous scout. It turns out my recollection was partly right. I had also called the widow of catcher Len Matte in this same batch, but fortunately she wasn't home.

But she did have that wondrous thing any pronunciation researcher hopes for on every call: an answering machine where she said her own name.

The moral of my tale is clear: "If anyone ever calls you up asking how to pronounce your name: give the wrong answer."