When you’re a reporter in New York, calling DCPI — Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, the NYPD’s press arm — is a routine fact of life. More often than not, the officers that answer are less than delighted to be speaking with you — they’ll deliver you your information hastily, or, frequently, claim to have no idea what you’re asking about before abruptly hanging up.
But sometimes, they’ll tell you to hang on a second, they’re going to look into your query. They’re going to put you on hold. And for the past six months or so, those minutes on hold have been among the best part of my day. Why?
Listen to this shit.
Odds are, these reporters are calling DCPI from a cramped cubicle, slowly frying under the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. In the background, another bruising round of layoffs is being announced via Slack. A longtime courts reporter crawls under his desk, whispering “I would prefer not to,” before closing his eyes and dying.
But when you’re on hold with DCPI, that all seems to melt away.
Suddenly, you’re in a ’57 Chevy Bel Air with a drop top. Baby blue, to match the ocean on your left, or maybe pink, to match the magnificent sunset refracting off the crystalline waters. One hand on the clutch, the other lightly holding a cigarette or hell, a joint — this is Miami — while your wrist guides the wheel. Harry Nilsson croons over the speakers, and in the glove box, a full stash of downers, for later, once you arrive at the beach bar.
If the music sounds familiar, it’s because a) you’ve been on hold, or b) Because you’re familiar with it from a 2014 This American Life segment called “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The music at the center of the story is the same music that I, too, would become obsessed with, though I didn’t yet know that would happen at the time that I made a mortifying phone call to DCPI.
DCPI did in fact respond to my request, replying that the agency’s music was changed about six months ago, and that if I wanted more details, I’d have to get in touch with Cisco, the vendor.
Luckily, TAL had already done the legwork for me, as a quick Google of “Cisco, hold music” revealed. The segment’s protagonist is reporter Sara Corbett’s father-in-law, Dick, and he, like me, was enraptured with the cotton-candy dream he heard every time he was on hold with any branch of his entire healthcare network:
Woman: — ford Hospital.
Dick: Hello. Could you do me a great favor? This is a very unusual call, but you know the music you have, the holding music? When you put me on hold, it plays it. Could you do that for me for a minute?
Dick describes it as “Just very unusual. It was bells and synthesizer, and I just — clapping. It was an unusual piece. It’s very hard to describe.”
My colleagues at the Voice, though, didn’t seems to have much trouble. “It’s like Vangelis is having a stroke,” offered Nick Pinto. “There’s nothing else I’d rather hear while I’m waiting to be told to ‘send an email,'” said Christopher Robbins. Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic “mostly” hates it, too:
“At three minutes, there is this horrifying funky Michael Bolton breakdown played on a xylophone synth,” he wrote. “In the stale elevator descending slowly into hades, this is what pours from the padded, yellow walls.”
The TAL segment does eventually get to the bottom of the music’s provenance, and the story, if not the tune itself, is irresistibly charming: It was made by a then-sixteen-year-old named Tim Carleton, who wrote it in 1989 on a four-track tape with his friend Darrick Deel.
Carleton is described as a “Yanni-loving computer nerd, messing around with a drum machine and a synthesizer in his parents’ garage in California.” And Deel, wouldn’t you know, had a job at Cisco designing phone systems. The two worked together to make the track, called “Opus No. 1,” the default music for the entire network. And they did! No one made a penny.
Sara Corbett: So has it ever yielded anything good for you? I mean, if it hasn’t made you money, has anybody ever bought you a drink in a bar, have you picked up women with it, or is there any —
Tim Carleton: No.
Sara Corbett: — rock star application here?
Tim Carleton: No, I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried to use the, you know, I wrote the default hold music for a lot of companies.
Sorry about that, Tim. But if you’re ever in the greater New York City area, I bet there are at least a few otherwise dispirited reporters who would be happy to buy you a drink. You’ve earned it.