James Schlafer wasn’t entirely sure what it would be like helping customers plan trips over the phone. But he’d spent his entire life biking and taking transit around the Twin Cities and had several years of experience as a telemarketer, providing what might have been the quintessential background for a job in Metro Transit’s Transit Information Center. It worked so well, in fact, that Schlafer ultimately spent more than 31 years as a Transit Information representative, becoming the department’s longest consecutively-serving employee by the time he retired in early-2017. “I’m pretty good at sticking with things,” Schlafer said wryly shortly before his retirement.
By his retirement, Schlafer had assisted up to 1 million callers over an estimated 3 million hours on the phone. The job was far from routine, though. Throughout his career, Schlafer challenged himself to look for solutions that weren’t immediately evident, mastering the quirks of local address systems and developing personalized mental shortcuts that helped him decipher the vague outlines callers sometimes presented him. “You get to know what people mean, even if they don’t really know what they mean,” he said. Schlafer’s intense study led to an encyclopedic knowledge of the transit system, at one point giving him the ability to place more than 120 routes on an unmarked map by memory. While technology eventually gave Transit Information representatives more immediate access to online trip planning tools, Schlafer said his intuition and knowledge base continued to be useful throughout his career. “Even if I didn’t have a computer or all these resources I could find out pretty accurately where someone was and still help them,” said Schlafer, known to callers as “Mr. James” throughout his career.
Schlafer took pride in proving the breadth of his knowledge, often telling self-convinced callers they’d owe him a Dr. Pepper if he could persuade them they were mistaken. “There are lot of people out there who owe me Dr. Peppers,” he said. That didn’t mean he wasn’t patient, though. In fact, Schlafer holds a likely record for the Transit Information Center’s longest phone conversation, a two-hour, 17-minute marathon call with someone looking for help getting around Burnsville and Eagan. “Usually, I try not to be on the phone long enough to have to be patient, but in this case all I could do was humor them for a really long time,” he said.
Approaching retirement, Schlafer said he would miss being a resource to his co-workers and answering what seemed like unsolvable puzzles. But he planned to have an active retirement, spending more time biking and taking daily hikes with his wife Diana, completing the Superior Hiking Trail, making photographs, writing music and participating in Mensa, a high IQ society.