WANTED: TELEPHONE OPERATORS. PREFER PRIM AND PROPER FEMALES WITH LONG ARMS

The world’s first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt, was hired in 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell who had invented the telephone two years earlier which was also the year of the nation’s centennial and of Custer’s Last Stand

Bell had tried using teenage boys as operators, but their attitude and behavior proved unacceptable. The Boston Telephone Dispatch Company’s customers appreciated Emma’s cultured voice and her patient, courteous manner, whereas the boys had too often been impatient, wisecracking and even profane. According to one source dignified Emma married one of those hopefully reformed boys years later.

Emma was 18 years old and in compliance with the company’s hiring requirements for operators by being between 17 and 26 years of age, unmarried, of a prim and proper appearance and with arms long enough to reach all points of their huge switchboard. Her starting salary was $10 a month. She soon memorized every phone number in the company’s directory and stayed at her post for about 35 years.

The prim and proper appearance requirement seems a bit odd for operators who would be unseen by the callers. However, around 1978, a century after Emma began to work, a Bell supervisor told me the company had once relaxed its strict dress code for operators but the resulting decline in attitude was disappointing and the code was reinstated. Are we dealing with the same decline in attitude during the current widespread dress down work days? Haven’t you noticed that even the lady robots seem a little testy on Fridays?

Live telephone operators were part of my life for many decades beginning in 1936 when my family got our first phone. Bobby, my best pal in the second grade, had been bragging about his family’s phone so I decided on that first day to call him to do some counter bragging. I lifted the receiver for the first time in my life and I heard, “Number please” by some lady with a pleasant, cultured voice and probably prim and proper with long arms. . She sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife.

“I don’t know his number, ” I said, “but I want to talk to Bobby. He lives across the street in the white house with the blue shutters.” For a moment there was silence on the other end and then i received a prim and proper instruction: “Please get your mother, Sonny.”

The Little People, Fact or Fiction?

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, let’s get something straight. Leprechauns are real. My grandma told me that many years ago and she would never lie. Grandma had lived in Ireland and was an eyewitness. The “little people” she said were very active in County Sligo. Other reliable sources have reported on these mischievous pixies and the accounts don’t vary that much.

Leprechauns are always described as resembling little old men, about three feet tall, and skilled at mending shoes and practical joking. If on St. Patrick’s Day Eve you leave a pair of worn out brogans outside your front door with a wee drop of something to ward off the night chill, you might be rewarded in the morning with new soles and heels, a bright shine and an empty shot glass.

If you’re fast enough you’ll get a glimpse of the departing cobbler who can be recognized by his unique garb. Leprechauns are said to wear red or green swallowtail jackets and red breeches buckled at the knees. William Butler Yeats, the Nobelist poet who lived in Sligo, added a significant detail based on his sightings. Their jackets, he said, have seven rows of buttons with seven in each row.

This could be useful to another eyewitness besides Grandma and Yeats. If you brake suddenly to avoid hitting a wandering Leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day, an accurate 49-button description would be an important detail in your report and might even make a breathalyzer test unnecessary especially if the investigating officer is Irish.

Never chase a Leprechaun, not even to thank him for the repaired brogans. He might think you’re after his hidden pot of gold which would change him from jolly to fiercely protective. Also, a captured Leprechaun would owe you three wishes, but be careful. They have a way of making you wish you hadn’t wished.

I may have had a leprechaun encounter of the fortunate kind. While touring the beautiful Ring of Kerry years ago, our guide Dennis announced, “We’ll be stoppin’ up the road a bit beside a peat bog. A little fellow will come out of the black thorn hedge and offer to sell you an ancient Irish beverage he calls “poteen”. It’s an old Gaelic word for “happy” I believe.”

I bought the beverage from the very little man in the green wool overcoat, but I didn’t know about the 49-button count then. Every St. Patrick’s Day I take a wee drop or three. It’s quite magical.

DAYDREAMS : OUR SECRET LIVES

Daydreams are better than night dreams which are often scary adventures with weird uninvited strangers or perhaps friends acting weirdly. You’re much more in control with daydreams. As the producer and director you’re in charge of casting, script-writing and even scenery and special effects. And of course you always have the starring role.

These secret lives of ours were once frowned upon by psychologists. Around the time we moved from craftsmanship to assembly line production the workforce was becoming saddled with tedious repetitive jobs. Daydreaming increased and was being criticized as promoting laziness and safety problems.In the 1950’s some psychologists warned that children who frequently daydreamed could become candidates for neurosis and even psychosis.

Today these fantasy sessions are said to be most prevalent among those with boring jobs such as lifeguards and truck drivers which is a little worrisome. I’d hate to be caught in a riptide off an Asbury Park beach and rapidly departing from North America while the lifeguard is winning a freestyle gold medal at the Summer Olympics in La La Land.

I’d also hope the driver of the 18-wheeler who’s been tailgating me on Route 80 is not enjoying “a short detachment from his immediate surroundings” as Wikipedia defines daydreaming.

Aside from that I agree with the current assessment of daydreams as valuable tools for geniuses like Einstein, Beethoven, Edison and Mel Brooks and as stress-relievers for the general population. I admit to being among the frequent flyer class of daydreamers. Before I retired it provided an emergency exit from ho-hum business meetings.

I kept my little mental rowboat moored in a convenient cove in my brain’s temporal lobe and when the vice president got to “a serious drop in second quarter earnings”, I began a peaceful cruise on beautiful Lake Parsippany. The weather was always perfect -billowy white clouds against an azure sky, a cooling breeze and gentle ripples that didn’t interfere with my rowing. I caught quite a few bass during those meeting/cruises. Sometimes there were other boats out there and I recognized fellow workers pulling on the oars. Once I was surprised to see that day’s speaker zip by on a trim little catboat. I could hear him reciting the corporate earnings report as he made a starboard tack.

One must keep a tight rein on one’s daydreams however. I had a dear friend who had the habit of letting his mind wander frequently. One day it meandered off and never came back. He now holds a high political office.

UNIVERSAL WORDS

The Bible and folklore tell the story of our ancient ancestors’ attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The plan was for the tower to reach heaven and provide an easy backdoor entrance. God canceled their building permit and put a damper on the project by depriving mankind of its universal language. Suddenly, the architect could no longer converse with the construction supervisor and the super’s orders to the bricklayers sounded like gibberish to them.

This polyglot situation is still in effect and is quite comprehensive. A linguistics expert at the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands claims there is only one word that means the same in every language, and it’s more of a grunt than a word. “Huh” is supposed to have the same meaning around the world whether it’s uttered in Brooklyn, Bangladesh or Bolivia. I guess the universal meaning is “I didn’t hear or understand what you just said.”

Maybe “huh” is the only completely universal word, but others must be in hundreds of vocabularies. Experts say the M’s and P’s in “mama” and “papa” are the easiest consonants for babies to pronounce, so those parental titles are used in many languages, but not all.

“Ah: is also widespread, usually meaning “I like that,” or “Please keep scratching there.” If “ah” is drawn out and accompanied by a scowl, it means “I don’t like that” or “The Mets just blew another one!”

There is a universal version of “ah” if it’s followed by “choo”, meaning “Something is tickling my nostril” or “You’re not supposed to smoke in here.” This reminds me of the joke about the American tourist lost in Berlin, very anxious and having a sneezing fit. A passerby politely said “Gesundheit” and the tourist remarked,”Thank goodness, someone who speaks English!”

It’s surprising that “ouch” is not a universal word. Pain is greeted with many different exclamations around the world. Japanese dental patients say “Itai!”. A German carpenter yelps “Autsch!” when his hammer hits his thumb and “Ay!” is what a Spanish toreador shouts after a too close encounter with the bull.

I’m not convinced about that one. Do we really have to learn what to shout if we scrape a knee in Nepal or get a cramp in Croatia? I’ll have to think about that. Hey, what about “hmm” for a universal word? Do you have any other suggestions?

RULE-BENDING

Benjamin Franklin said, “The Constitution only guarantees Americans the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

That makes sense, but of course there are rules to be followed during the pursuit and where there are rules, there will always be rule-benders.

Those who believe that wealth is a vital ingredient of happiness become impatient with any rules that stand between them and Easy Street. There’s the pol who forgets that the donated funds are for his campaign expenses and not his champagne flights and the financial officer with his sure-fire recipe for cooking the books.

Many of these perps end up with no money worries and living in gated communities. However, the gates are locked and armed guards are posted on the walls.

We all occasionally try to circumvent an inconvenient regulation, usually on a small scale, and maybe not even involving money. A friend told me his doctor had ordered him to walk two miles every day to maintain his fitness and health . “It was pretty awful the first week,” he said. “I was out of shape and exhausted after those two-mile forced marches, but then, luckily, I found a shortcut.”

In 1938 Douglas Corrigan, a young flyer from Texas, was refused official permission for a transatlantic flight to Europe. After flying his single engine plane from California to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, he took off again, supposedly for a return flight to California, but ended up landing in Ireland instead. His excuse for the significant route change was low cloud cover that he said obscured the view of the ocean below, and his misreading of his compass. He became famous as “Wrong Way Corrigan” and never publicly changed his story. After all, the authorities must have been embarrassed. They’d said his plane wasn’t capable of a flight to Europe.

Once when I was a little kid I wanted to go to the movies, but the admission price then was ten cents and I had only one lonely nickel. I asked my older brother Jim for a loan. “I can’t help you,” he said, “but you can get in with a nickel. Just tell them you’re going to watch the movie with one eye closed.” I was only seven years old and dumb enough to think that might work.

The theater manager laughed in my face and said, “Okay, kid, but if I catch you opening the other eye during the movie I’m calling the cops and I’ll have you arrested..” I was also dumb enough to believe him and I left. I’d recently seen a scary George Raft movie about Sing Sing Prison and I didn’t want to end up in the slammer. A week later I returned wearing an eye patch, but that didn’t work either.



CHRISTMAS PAST

It’s the day after Christmas,

a time to review it,

but actually though

I’d rather sleep through it.

The kids are now making a calamitous noise

shouting their claims on all the new toys.

Out in the kitchen, Mother takes pains

to come up with a plan for the turkey’s remains.

My new loud-colored tie which I said was a beauty

I’ll wear it some day, but under my hoodie.