GENERAL ARTICLES

Switchboard Diplomats

ARTHUR LOWE September 1 1934
GENERAL ARTICLES

Switchboard Diplomats

ARTHUR LOWE September 1 1934

Switchboard Diplomats

ARTHUR LOWE

EVEN the most blasé person, I suspect, finds a certain glamor about a big hotel. The mere mention of such a place suggests luxury, faultless service, beautiful women in slinky dresses, intrigues with an Oppenheim flavor, shaded lights, courteous servants in smart liveries, gleaming silver,dramatic meetings— romance. More than this, it suggests a peculiar magic, for in a modern hostelry one has only to wish aloud in order to have a wish fulfilled. Which brings us to the telephone.

I have a feeling that the talented gentlemen who write advertising copy for the big hotels do not pay nearly enough attention to hotel magic. They write felicitously of service, of the radio in every room, of an unexampled cuisine, but they say nothing about the wizardry behind it all —the wizardry which is largely the work of the switchboard ojxrator.

'lake the Royal York, in Toronto, for example. It is an excellent hotel excellently run, and yet, at the risk of giving Mr. Beatty a jealous twinge or two, I am compelled to report that it would be no more than an imposing shell without the switchboard ojxrators. They control its nerves, they make it function, they smooth and straighten out troubles, they supply, unwittingly of course, a good deal of the romance and glamor. And—if you are t;x> prosaically minded to believe in magic—they do it all with tact and colored golf tees.

I he switchboard—and it is the same in other large hotels —is situated in a soundproof room apart from the office. I he switchboard, running the complete length of the room, is divided into eight panels, at each of which sits an ojxrator. Near the door is the sujxrvisor’s desk, and behind, fastened to the wall, is a huge blackboard bearing intriguing scraps of information such as: “1184 does not want to receive messages from Miss Pearl La Plante. Check all women calling, or: “If Mrs. Brown calls, tell her that Mr. Brown has sailed for Kamschatka.”

. The mechanics of a switchboard operator’s job are as simjile as A.B.C., but in a big hotel the girls are not chosen merely because of their ability to plug in numbers quickly. They must possess brains, patience, and the peculiar virtue of saying everything with a smile. They need not possess good looks, but they always do.

The mechanics of the job, as I have said, are simple, but

a word or two of exjilanation is needed in order to explain the use of the colored jilugs which look so much like golf tees. The panel of a switchboard, as you have probably noticed, is not unlike a fiat colander. It contains hundreds of circular holes, each of which is the nerve end of an inside telejilione. Close to each nerve end is a tiny bulb which winks with light when the receiver of a telejilione is lifted. When an ojxrator sees such a light ajijxar, she jilugs the cord of her own earjihones into the hole indicated and takes the order. In a row in front of her panel there are a dozen or more red-jacketed, brass-tijijxd cords, each of which is the end of an outside line and for each of which there is a switch and a tiny bulb. When an incoming call is received, one of these bulbs in front of the jianel lights uji, and the ojxrator connects the caller with the room he wants by plugging the brass tiji of the outside line into the correct hole on the panel. Which is simjile enough as long as the hole is empty, but quite frequently it is already jilugged—by a colored golf tee.

“The colored plugs,” said MissCroney of the Royal York, who has had long exjxrience as an ojxrator, “indicate what tyjx of service a guest requires. A yellow jilug, for examjjle, indicates that he has asked for permanent service—”

“But don’t you give them all jxrmanent service?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No. Permanent service means that the guest does not receive any calls.”

Service Possibilities

TO ME this idea of service suggested new and wonderful jxissibilities. It suggested that our inventive age had almost run full cycle, and that soon the quintessence of luxury would lx: to own gadgets that wouldn't work. I mentioned this to Miss Croney.

“Yes,” she said, “there are quite a lot of jxople who don’t want to be bothered by the telejilione. Quite a lot, too, for whom we rejxirt ‘not registered.’ In the case of ‘jxrmanent service’ guests though, the caller is referred to the switchboard information clerk and she takes any messages.”

The golf-tee plugs run the gamut of colors from blue to pink and each color represents some particular form of service. Blue, for example, indicates that the guest who occupied that room has moved to another. A rose jilug and the caller is referred to the guest’s city office. So it gcxs, but all the colors of the sjxctrum would not be sufficient to cover every tyjx of service demanded.

“Sometimes,” said Miss Croney, “a guest will be joined

here by his wife. When (liât IMJIJXMIS, we are frequently asked not to connect any women callers with his room.” “Sounds pretty simple," 1 hazarded.

"Yes? Hut you forget his wife may have friends who will want to call her up.”

I saw1 the difficulty.

“In cases like that,” MissCroney went on, "the operator says very distinctly: ‘Do you want to talk to Mr. or Mrs. Jones?' After that there is no need to explain. If the caller is a friend of the husband she invariably hangs up.”

Romance on the Wire

TI IE VAST majority of men who come within the switchboard operator’s orbit and I sjxike to many operators at various hotels are models of propriety, but naturally she meets the others, suffering from chronic loneliness, who consider a meal wasted if it isn't shared by a pretty girl. If she wanted to she could listen to plenty of flirtations, but she doesn't, for she has discovered that most lonely men are exceedingly unoriginal. For a few she Ixars a great respect: they are the ones who ring the wife long distance when the pangs of loneliness become too acute.

Flirtations flourish in a big hotel, but so sometimes does true love, and on one occasion the extra-professional interest of a hotel ojxrator saved the breaking of a romantic match. It is a match which may some day cause a considerable stir in the newspapers, but until that day comes I am under promise not to divulge names. And so we will call the principals Mr. X and Miss Y. Miss Y is the daughter of a distinguished English statesman; Mr. X is a lecturer in a Canadian university.

The couple met in England several years ago. They fell in love and, just like every other couple, they believed that there was something unique, something altogether wonderful about their affair. There was no prosjxct of an early marriage, for Miss Y was acting as hostess for her father who is a widower, but again like every other couple — they were ready to wait for each other until time’s end.

They waited two years and then so one must infer, for there are gaps in the record there came an estrangement. By that time Mr. X was back in Canada.

There is no way of knowing how serious the estrangement was, but when later on Miss Y visited New York with her father, Mr. X, travelling incognito, met her there, and the estrangement became very wide and very deep. That much we may deduce from the fact that Mr. X returned to his Toronto hotel looking as gloomy and disconsolate as a retired dean.

Continued on page 44

Switchboard Diplomats

Continued from page 11

On the night of his return the operator received a call from New York for him. She went to plug in his number and then saw' that the room w'as marked vacant.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but Mr. X has checked out.”

She heard the message relayed back to New York and then she heard the party at the other end of the line say:

"Let me speak to the hotel operator please.”

(“The nicest voice,” my informant interjected.)

“It’s very, very important,” said the girl in New York when she was duly connected. “Do you suppose he could still be in the hotel—in the lobby perhaps? I must speak to him and we’re sailing tonight. . . .”

The operator called the office and found that Mr. X had just checked out to catch the Montreal train w hich was due to leave in a few minutes. Without a by-your-leave to the management, she sent a bell-boy down to the station and in due course Mr. X returned to take his call.

“But,” said I when I had listened to the story, “what makes you think that they made it up?”

“Because as soon as he had finished speaking he went right down to the lobby and bought me a five-pound box of chocolates. And, anyway, when the girl asked me to get him if I could, she said she’d done something terribly foolish.”

And I was given to understand that there is only one terribly foolish thing a woman can do.

John Brown’s Bodyguard

TN CONTRAST with this pretty romance

there is another. A woman called up the switchboard from a house phone and asked to have Mr. John Brown paged. The operator was a little puzzled, she couldn’t quite understand why the caller didn’t take a tum round the lobby and find Mr. John Brown herself, but she said nothing and soon a page began: “Calling Mr. John

Brown; calling Mr. John Brown.”

Mr. Brown answered the call and was taken to the telephone.

"If you want to see him he’s right in the next box to you,” the operator told the woman.

But no, she didn’t want to see him; she would talk to him on the telephone. And so they talked on the telephone. Afterward the man left and joined his wife, who had been waiting patiently in the lobby. No doubt he had much to say about the exigencies of business.

Comparatively few of an operator’s runof-the-mill calls are exciting, but many of them are strange. The most common request, apart from outside numbers, is for the time. A surprising number of gentlemen, too, need prompting as to the day of the week.

Frequently the operator must disentangle the speech of a foreign visitor. One operator received a call from a South American gentleman who wanted, as far as she could make out, “five dyes.”

“Five dyes?” she repeated, puzzled.

"Si, five dyes!” The South American would have gone on repeating it ad infinitum if a bright thought had not occurred to the switchboard girl. She rang room service.

“Of course, he means five pies,” she said to herself, marvelling at his gargantuan appetite.

But he didn’t mean five pies, he meant live flies. It turned out that his taste in pets ran to lizards, some of which he had brought with him in a metal cage, and it was a meal for them that he was seeking.

It doesn’t take the switchboard operator long to get the low-down on human nature, and if an up-and-coming novelist really wanted to discover something about life in the raw, he might do worse than cultivate the lady in the ear-phones. Mind you, she doesn’t listen in to conversations—that’s against the rules. But she hears enough, just in the ordinary fulfillment of her duties, to make her realize what strange beings we humans are.

“The nicest person as far as the operator is concerned.” Miss Croney told me, “is the really important man. He is always considerate. The worst nuisance is the man who gets angry and blusters, and tries to show his importance by shouting. Women can be trying, too, but they’re different; they never shout. When a woman gets angry her voice is low, silky, sweet. Then she’s deadly.”

One of the danger signals which the switchboard operator must watch is the “do not disturb” order. Usually it is given because of a genuine desire on the part of the guest to sleep in, but sometimes it is a prelude to suicide or attempted suicide. Dead beats, too, sometimes express a desire not to be disturbed when they are preparing to decamp, with the suave notion of getting a twelve-hour start on the credit manager.

Sometimes there is excitement.

“Once,” an operator said, “a girl was taken ill in the hotel and was believed to be dying. She expressed a wish to marry her fiancé before the end came. In less than no time I got a clergyman, a marriage license official and the girl’s sweetheart. They all went up to the room and the marriage took place, but while that was happening a fire broke out downstairs and I had to call the fire reels. Oh, yes, and I called an ambulance to take the girl to hospital.”

The little beads on the switchboard were flickering with light and she plugged in her cords. “No, I’m sorry, Mr. Brown doesn’t answer. Yes, madam, I’ll leave a message. I’m sorry, Mr. Brown doesn’t answer—” She looked up at me. “You know I really ought to write a book.” she said.