After the humorous but mortifying story of shopping for my brother’s jock strap, I thought I would post a nice memory of my brother’s companionship. It comes at the end of this meandering trip down memory lane, so stroll on with me for 800 words or so.
My brother was in high school when I was in college. Actually he was in grammar school AND high school when I was in college, since I liked college and stayed there as long as possible. And by as long as possible, I mean until my parents insisted I wrap it up. So I reluctantly graduated. You needed 120 credits to graduate. I had 148.
During the decade or so that I was in college, I worked summers and semester breaks at The Phone Company. Yeah, the old Ma Bell. As Lily Tomlin said,
“We’re the Phone Company. We don’t care. We don’t have to.”
And Ma Bell was one strict Mama. Skirts and pantyhose, no slacks, no snacking, no chatting, and you had to ask to use the bathroom. And no air conditioning. And the pay sucked too. But it was easy, and my sisters worked through college for even suckier pay inspecting springs in a sweltering dirty factory. So I was actually lucky. And I knew it.
It was the end of an era at Ma Bell. Pre-computers, Directory Assistance meant sitting at a station with humongous phone books for every city in Connecticut. You heaved those big hinged books and looked up phone numbers – all day long – wearing a big Ernestine headset that made your head ache in four places. You’d look up number after number, and then you’d look at the clock and three minutes had gone by. 477 to go.
But Long Distance was more interesting. And a dying skill that I was probably one of the last people in the universe to learn. An old World War II era switchboard with the ancient frayed cords and plugs – half of which didn’t work – so you had to learn which switches functioned and which had died years ago. Some people though never learned that. We had one old lady who, when she couldn’t hear the customer, would lean closer to the little holes – like the customer was in there somewhere. And you sat up on high stools and placed person-to-person calls and collect calls, and calls from pay phones where you had to listen to the dimes and nickels drop and the customer was calling his Mamere in Canada where the phone number was “2”. (The whole phone number. Two.)
I was a hippie back then in the early seventies. And I was kind of the token liberal at the Phone Company. Sometimes I think they found me quaint and humorous, like a harmless little raccoon that you find on your porch. In my novel, I described a dress that my protagonist buys for her newly acquired daughter – a purple tee-shirt dress with a yellow lightning bolt down the front. Well, I had that dress. And one day a guy came in from corporate headquarters to interview employees for the company newsletter, and I was wearing the purple and lightning bolt dress and my wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, and so guess who he interviewed.
“What would you do if you were the President?” he asked.
“I’d stop the war right now,” I said. (Of course.)
“I meant the president of the COMPANY,” he explained with a smirk.
“Oh, then I think I would buy better pencils,” I said with my own smirk.
The worst part of my job was the hours. The year-round employees got the best shifts, which was only fair, but that left me most days with 2:00 – 10:00 PM. Not exactly conducive to a college girl’s love life. Good thing I didn’t have one.
But the best thing about the job was my teenage brother.
I was not allowed to get personal phone calls. But he would call at least once a week around 9:45. He’d just dial (yup, dial phones back then) zero for the operator, and whoever answered, he’d ask them to give me a message. And he was so sweet and the message so family-oriented, that the message always got delivered to me, rules or not. Someone would pass me a note, or even the supervisor would come up to me and say,
“Your little brother called. He wanted to remind you that you are supposed to pick up your aunt on the way home from work.”
“Oh, thanks, I had completely forgotten,” I’d say in my ditziest hippie-voice. No one wanted to see my poor aunt get stranded late at night.
But by “aunt,” my brother meant “pizza.” He had called Main Street Pizza, right near the phone company, and there was a medium pizza with peppers and meatballs waiting for me at 10:00 PM.
And I’d pick up my “aunt” after work and my brother and I would share a late-night pizza in front of the TV after my parents had gone to bed.
It was really good pizza and really good company.