Telephone operators a thing of the past

Last week I wrote about the troubles I have with telephone recordings when trying to call businesses. Live humans seem to be extinct.


Phone calls used to be so simple. There were people you could talk to on your phone while trying to get to other people; they were called operators.

They weren’t all as homey as the never-seen Sarah on The Andy Griffith Show, but they were courteous, hard-working people who connected you with your party.

“Party.” That’s a funny term for the other person, isn’t it? I’m already struggling to reach someone, and now it sounds as though I’m missing a party. Literally. But I digress.

Do you remember Jim Croce? The folk singer had a 1972 hit called Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels), a clever, one-sided conversation with a long-distance operator as he tries to get in touch with his old flame in Los Angeles.

“Operator, well could you help me place this call?” he says. He has her number on a matchbook, but it is “old and faded.”

We learn she ran off with his “best old ex-friend Ray,” and he wants to talk with her one last time to let her know that – neener, neener – he has gotten over her.

The living operator tells him the number.

That’s what operators used to do in the world before cellphones and the Internet. They had everybody’s number. They had your number.

It’s obvious the caller is not over the relationship, after all. He isn’t able to read the number the operator gave him because “there’s something in my eyes.” The call serves as therapy, though, and he finally decides to let it go.

“There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to,” he philosophizes, then thanks the operator and tells her to keep the dime.

Things were much different 42 years ago, weren’t they? Operators. Match­books. Long-distance. Pay phones. A dime for a call. Phones, like relationships, started off simple.

I’d love to make Jim Croce’s call today and tell Directory Assistance I’m trying to reach my old flame, but I imagine it wouldn’t go so smoothly:

“Operator, well could you help me place this call? You see, the number on the matchbook is old and faded.”

“For Directory Assis­tance, press ‘one.’ Para Espanol, por favor presione ‘dos.’ ”

“I need my old girlfriend’s number in LA.”

“City and state, please.”

“Still Los Angeles. The one in California, of course. Not the one in Texas, which is even smaller than my self-esteem right now, what with my girlfriend –”

“Please state the name of the business, or say ‘residence.’ ”

“She’s living with Ray. You know, I thought I could trust that guy.”

“If you don’t have the name, please call back later.”


You know, Jim Croce was lucky he didn’t have sophisticated phones back then.



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