Behind the Scenes at AA's New York Intergroup Office

By Neville Elder 03/02/16

The phone volunteers at AA's central office in New York are on the front lines of recovery.

Image: 
Who You Gonna Call?
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At 9:20 am on a crisp, cold Saturday morning in February, three twenty-something young women in tight black jeans and sweaters sat at old-fashioned metal-framed office desks in an overheated New York City office, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. Above them—on either side of a cork notice board with multi-colored flyers—the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous is mounted, framed behind glass. A man in his fifties with short white hair sits at another desk, the "hospital desk," facing the glass front door of the Alcoholics Anonymous New York Intergroup, or central office. Nearby, framed photos of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, hang above the snack table. On each desk sits binders full of New York AA meeting directories and an analogue phone with nine phone lines. It was a slow morning, so the women ate soup and bagels as they waited for the phones to ring.

Caitlin a tall, rail-thin girl with a brown bob, was about to publish her first nonfiction essay on a well-known women's magazine website. As the story went live, the girls gathered excitedly around Caitlin’s desk and read bits aloud to each other from their iPhones.

“Oh! I love that you said, ‘compare and despair,’” said Jane.

("Compare and despair"—an AA staple, sort of schadenfreude in reverse.)

“Yeah, I know it’s a cliché,” said Caitlin, “but to someone who doesn’t know AA, it probably sounds really original.”

“The most.”

“Yah, totally.”

When the phones rang, they snapped up the old-fashioned receivers. With gentle, soothing tones, they expertly dispatched lost and lonely alcoholics to meetings around New York City’s five boroughs and parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island before slipping back into their whiplash, vocal-fried conversation.

One of the other girls, Jane, received a call from a woman calling from a payphone in Orlando, Florida. The caller was lost, looking for a meeting room somewhere in a hospital. AA in New York doesn’t carry meeting directories for other areas—every state has their own Intergroup—but often, callers find New York's Intergroup phone number online. And on the weekend, calls are forwarded from AA’s World Services Office. Caitlin opened her Mac and Googled the phone number for Florida’s AA Intergroup.

The man at the hospital desk has been answering phones at Intergroup for years. Chris D. giggled with persistent good humor as he chatted with people in the room. His first call that morning was from a man who said Charles Manson had died. 

“Can I help you get to a meeting?” said Chris.

“I know where I’m going,” said the caller, and hung up.

It’s like that sometimes, just people who have lost their minds, calling in. Perhaps some sort of muscle memory kicks in between dawn and the first drink, and they find themselves picking up the phone and dialing Intergroup’s number, without really knowing why.

Chris got to his first meeting after calling AA on March 5, 1996.

“It was the first day I’d gone without a drink in…forever,” he recalled, “and [the phone volunteer] was so jolly and friendly, I wanted to wring his neck!”

The next time he called AA was eight years later. Chris was sober—he had been going to meetings steadily ever since that first call.

“I was angrier then than I was when I was drinking! I was holding on to things, so many resentments. I deleted all my AA names from my phone. Nobody talked to me anyway, I thought, and I stood in front of a bar. Nobody would know if I drank,” he said.

“But I stopped, took a deep breath, and I called Intergroup. And they gave me the address of a meeting in my neighborhood.”

Intergroup was Chris’ lifeline every time he was desperate.

“At ten years sober, I was doing better. I realized how much I’d been given and I wanted to give something back. So I started answering the phones myself.”

When a volunteer comes into Intergroup to answer phones, they normally do a four-hour shift. After they sign in and check the meetings board for any temporary changes or cancellations, they take a seat at one of the five desks with the meetings book, a volunteer handbook, a pen and paper and, of course, a phone. The meetings aren’t computerized—there’s no, “dial 1 for Manhattan meetings, 2 for meetings in the Bronx…”—though New York Intergroup has a meetings directory on its website.

“There should always be a voice at the other end of the line,” said Chris. “Bill tried on his own for years to get sober until he met Dr. Bob, another drunk. An alcoholic has one thing in common with another alcoholic—an ability to relate. A computer can’t relate.”

When someone calls in, the volunteer picks up and helps them get to a meeting by looking through their binder. Sometimes a caller will have other questions. They may want the number for Spanish speaking meetings or special interest meetings with a focus on, say, transgender issues. They might be seeking help for someone they know—in that case, they are given the number for Al-Anon, the 12-step organization for people trying to cope with alcoholics in their lives. This may seem unhelpful, but in accordance with AA traditions, the alcoholic has to admit they have a problem and ask for help themselves. And of course, they may have decided they have a problem with alcohol and need someone to talk to.

The desk facing the door designated "the hospital desk" is often where the volunteer with the most experience sits. It maintains its name, though it is rarely used for its original purpose—finding beds for people who need to detox. Now hospitals themselves handle those calls, and this desk has become a help desk for the other volunteers in the room who need assistance with calls they don’t know what do with. Sometimes people call in who are so bewildered and desperate, that they don’t even know what they want.

“Once I watched a volunteer take a call, and her face went sheet white,” said Chris. “So I went over to her and passed her a note: ‘Topic?’ She wrote, ‘S-u-i-c-i-d-e.’”

Volunteers aren’t trained for a crisis call like this.

"I wrote another note: 'Use what you know from your program,'" said Chris, "The volunteer and the caller talked for a while, and then agreed to let us call 911 to get her immediate help."

Powerful stuff.

“Maybe I’m the geek, but when the phones are going nuts, when there’s lots of action like when the website went down, I sit there with a smile on my face.”

When Caitlin, the website sensation, left early for a friend’s wedding dress appointment, the girls gathered around a desk and gossiped about an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s Instagram. The call rate dropped to a trickle and we all slipped into a reverie.

The phone rang.

Like gunfighters, they grabbed at the receivers. Chris was the quickest on the draw.

“AA, can I help you?”

“What time’s the Superbowl?” said a gruff voice.

“This is AA,” said Chris.

“What channel is it on?” the caller said.

Chris asked the people in the room. No one seemed to know.

“I think it’s on CBS?” said Chris.

“Did you know Charles Manson died?”

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