The Bell System telephone operator was touted in much of AT&T's advertising as The Voice with a Smile-a young, demure girl wearing a metal headset with a black transmission horn hanging around her neck. The Voice with a Smile equated to courteous, dependable around-the-clock service, and year after year she was voted by many Americans to be the symbol of courtesy, but that was certainly not the whole story-not by a long shot!
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Behind the Voice with a Smile
By Nelly Nallon
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Nelly Nallon
All rights reserved.
The Return to Eastmont
Ellen Nallon squints as she searches for the parkway entrance through the wild, frenzied March storm that beats against the windshield of her silver Camaro. Was it really over ten years since she drove on this parkway for what she prayed, and vehemently swore, would be the last time? Would her return from Florida to the Bell Telephone's Eastmont traffic office reunion resurrect the painful memories she had worked so hard to put to rest?
Ellen had just about convinced herself that curiosity was the prime factor in her decision to attend the Bell System's Eastmont traffic office reunion. Certainly, one could not have worked so many years with a group of people and not wonder what had become of them! She frowns as she remembers her therapist's suggestion that her decision to make the long, arduous drive north to attend this reunion was triggered by a compulsion to return and, somehow, alter the past.
The storm had not diminished and the swirling cascade of sleet and snow continued to pelt her windshield, but the broad, straight parkway lanes with the freshly-painted white lines make it possible for Ellen to maintain a reasonable speed. Checking her watch, she realizes it is past five o'clock, and in an hour it will be dark. Unfortunately, she will also hit the workers' traffic as they head for their homes. She promises herself that once she checks into a motel she will take a warm, leisurely shower and just relax. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to drive around and scout the area, since the Eastmont reunion would not start until 8 P.M.
As she nears the Eastmont exit, Ellen cannot ignore the sudden chill that envelops her body. Despite the emotional and geographical distancing from Eastmont that she had struggled to achieve, she is painfully aware that Eastmont can still trigger deep apprehension and ominous vibrations within her.
Sighting a Holiday Inn, Ellen veers to the right toward the exit ramp and is amazed at the changes that have taken place in the area. Several other motels, a couple of fast food restaurants, two gas stations, and a small strip mall now occupy the huge, barren stretch of land that had once bordered the parkway. After squeezing the Camaro into a tight parking slot, she pulls the hood of her raincoat tightly around her head, races toward the brightly lit entrance to McDonalds and orders a quarter pounder and a large coffee--no use having to come back out into the unyielding winter storm once she has checked in at the motel.
Finally stepping out of the warm shower she had been envisioning for the last hundred miles, Ellen reaches for her thick, wooly robe, turns off the overhead light, and pushing a chair closer to the big motel window, she stares out into the murky darkness of the night. Experiencing once again the wretched, bone-chilling cold and the grey bleakness of an Eastmont winter, Ellen is suddenly overwhelmed by a surge of memories of another March day so very long ago.CHAPTER 2
The month is March, and Ellen is seventeen and back in Eastmont. A heavy snow mixed with sleet has persisted through yet another cold winter day, and the roads are covered with ice and snow turned black from the noxious exhausts of an endless flow of cars and trucks entering and leaving the city.
Ellen is attempting to stomp the snow from her boots before she enters the Bell System Employment Office, but the frozen snow resists her efforts. Lining up behind a dozen other young girls who are waiting their turn to complete an application for the position of operator, she is finally handed the lengthy form. After another long wait, the application is reviewed by a stern, unsmiling women who repeats, parrot-like, what she has said to each of the other girls, "Eastmont is not hiring at the present, but we will keep your application on file in case there is an opening."
Discouraged, Ellen walks out into the bitter cold, heads for the Walgreens lunch counter on the corner, and orders a cup of coffee. After paying the waitress, she gets another coin ready as she waits patiently at the bus stop for the long ride home.
Three months later she receives a call and is sent for an interview at the local Bell Telephone employment office. Now, sitting in the darkened motel room, Ellen is astonished that she still remembers many of the interviewer's questions, some of which she thought at the time were rather personal and had absolutely nothing to do with the job. Had she found school boring? What did she think of her teachers? Was she living at home? Was her father working? What were her home duties? Did she pay board at home? Was there a day of the week she could not work--perhaps because of her religion? Did she plan to go to college? Was she dating? How frequently?
The questions were asked randomly and very casually, with no apparent order or importance; yet, in hindsight, Ellen realizes the interviewer had actually determined the economic conditions in her home, if she was self-supporting, if she had family responsibilities or religious obligations that would preclude working any scheduled day, if a steady boyfriend might discourage her from working evenings, if there was a chance she might leave to further her education, if she could accept authority, would she likely be able to handle the repetitive nature of the job, and did she respect people in authority.
Ellen closes her eyes as she remembers being asked to stand against a square column, which she assumed had been installed for structural purposes, and to stretch first her right arm and then her left arm as far as she could. The interviewer appeared to be estimating how far her arms extended across the brown and beige square tiles on the floor. Ellen guessed by the interviewer's smile that her arms must be long enough to be a Bell telephone operator.
Although Ellen had never liked math, she remembers that portion of the employment test as being easy, with simple addition and subtraction problems. She would eventually learn that the Bell System considered the traffic department to be their factory branch, and after determining a job applicant had normal vision and hearing and spoke clearly in the English language, they looked primarily for those who would likely accept rigid discipline and endure stressful, physically demanding work.
An appointment was made for a rather cursory physical examination in a medical building a few blocks away, and when it was completed, the doctor excused himself for a moment. Returning, he motioned to a telephone on his desk, handed her a card with a number imprinted on it, and instructed Ellen to call Miss Stuart, the chief operator at Eastmont, the local telephone office.
Miss Stuart answered on the first ring. When Ellen identified herself, she was told she had passed her physical and was to begin a three-week training period at the Eastmont office at 7 A.M. on June 28. When Ellen assured her she could, Miss Stuart replied, "Fine, Miss Nallon. I will see you then."
Ellen heard a click and realized the conversation had ended. Ellen would soon learn that this was the way Miss Stuart did things: She made swift decisions. There would be no wasted words or emotions.CHAPTER 3
Sitting in the quiet of the motel room, Ellen is both surprised and dismayed at the negative feelings that the memory of Miss Stuart has rekindled.
Suzanne Stuart was probably in her early forties but could easily have passed for thirty. Her hair was a pale champagne beige, with each precision-cut strand always exactly in place. Miss Stuart never had a bad-hair-day! Some operators sarcastically remarked that they could not imagine her allowing a man to run his fingers through her hair or smear her perfectly applied makeup. Most operators were convinced that she always slept alone. Some jokingly wanted to make bets on it, but it would have been Behind the Voice with a Smile impossible to collect on such a wager because so little was known about Suzanne Stuart.
She and two male managers from the accounting department ate their lunches in the rear booth of the Stratford Restaurant. She never went into the employees' cafeteria for her coffee break and used only the management lounge and rest room. The one thing the office force knew for certain was that she had transferred from a New York Bell Telephone office and had kept her Manhattan apartment.
Suzanne possessed the grace and bearing of a trained dancer, and she wore classically cut designer dresses which somehow never wrinkled--long before polyester became popular. She was probably about 5'7", but with her perfect posture and her polished, aloof voice and demeanor, she seemed so much taller.
During the years Suzanne was at Eastmont, the traffic force, including her assistant chiefs, the supervision staff and the operators all worked under terribly stressful conditions. From the moment Miss Stuart arrived and walked into her office at precisely 8:45 each morning, the tension was almost overwhelming. And inside her deeply tinted, glass-enclosed office is precisely where she remained most of the time! From there she could observe everything: If calls were being answered promptly; whether the supervisors, whose actual title was service assistant, but who were routinely referred to as SA's, were walking behind the operators and pointing out waiting signals--their principal responsibility! She also could observe if anyone was tardy or came back late from a lunch or relief period or if an operator turned her head or spoke to an adjacent operator. From a specially equipped black telephone in her office, she could listen in on the operators and the supervisory force, and she could also monitor the clerical staff's telephone calls at the big mahogany desk in the center of the office (which was always referred to as the operating room.
Miss Stuart rarely found it necessary to rub elbows with the operating force because she delegated most of the responsibility for discipline to her assistant chief, Miss Peggy Palmer, to whose attention she would bring any observed infraction or situation that was not standard toll office practice. Miss Palmer would immediately bring the infraction to the attention of the service assistant (SA) in that section, and the SA would instruct the operator to step out of her position, sit on the highchair (seen by the force as the baby's highchair) next to the SA's highchair, and there she would reprimand the operator in view of the other employees. It appeared that a correction could never be made by simply plugging in with the operator and quietly bringing the transgression to her attention. The embarrassment of having to sit on the highchair was always an integral part of discipline.
Ellen smiles as she remembers Eastmont's assistant chief. Peggy Palmer was a nervous, mousey woman with greying brown hair which she had worn braided and wrapped tightly around her head for the last twenty years. Short in stature and reed-thin, she favored drab colors and demure, matronly dresses--in sharp contrast to Miss Stuart's chic attire. Miss Palmer always wore brown tennis shoes at work, and it was generally agreed that she could walk to within a few inches of an employee, who would never hear her approach. Ellen soon learned that in the Bell System a management employee did not have to be tall or muscular or aggressive to handle discipline in a large traffic office. The magnitude of the power readily available to every management person (which could sometimes be set in motion by a mere suggestion to the employee's SA) could then wind itself up or down the "chain of command." Yes, mused Ellen, "Walk softly and carry a big stick" (power) surely proved true at Eastmont.
The smile fades as Ellen remembers how, on the rare occasions that a worker would be summoned to Miss Stuart's office, she had to be prepared to be suspended or, in many cases, coerced. And coercion was practiced with a special expertise by Suzanne! If an operator committed a serious infraction, but she was fast, accurate, and had a good attendance record, Miss Stuart really did not want to lose her. Instead, she would summon the culprit to her tinted-glass office and affect great alarm over the infraction, intimating that she felt she had no recourse but to fire her.
When she felt the operator was sufficiently upset and visibly repentant, Miss Stuart would suggest that because the operator had a satisfactory record before this infraction, she might be able to overlook the offense this one time. Explaining that she would, however, have to place a record of the incident in the operator's personal envelope, she would then make a great show of opening the personal envelope and placing the bad report inside. Every operator who experienced Miss Stuart's envelope-stuffing performance has said that she felt, from that moment, like an indentured servant.
Ellen recalls that the first time she was summoned to Miss Stuart's office was shortly after Ellen's marriage. As she sat on the hard, gun-metal-grey chair waiting for Miss Stuart to enter her office, Ellen peered out the dark, deeply tinted glass windows and realized they were virtually one-way mirrors! Certainly, the force could distinguish only vague shadows inside her office from the operating room.
Idly gazing across the huge, polished oak desk, Ellen noted how each book, paper, and pencil appeared to have an assigned place. Even the thick sheaves of paper in the in-out baskets seemed to be perfectly aligned. Yes, Ellen mused, Suzanne Stuart is most definitely a perfectionist.
Ellen noticed a small cabinet next to Miss Stuart's desk, and through a partially-opened door she saw the black telephone, where it was rumored Suzanne spent much of her time listening in on the operators. On the bottom shelves of the cabinet was a battery of other telephone devices which she felt sure were more listening-in equipment. Ellen shuddered. My God, I feel like I'm sitting in Gestapo headquarters!
She glanced at her watch and realized she had been waiting almost ten minutes. Assuming that Miss Stuart was probably on her relief period, Ellen continued to worry and agonize over what crime she had committed to find herself in this dreaded chair. At last, the office door opened.
Suzanne Stuart sat down in her high-backed, black leather chair and appeared to be studying Ellen from across the massive desk. It was the first time Ellen had been this close to Miss Stuart, and she felt an eerie chill as she looked into those ice-blue eyes.
"Mrs. Johnson, I have not had the opportunity to congratulate you on your recent marriage," Suzanne said in a well-modulated, almost gentle voice.
"Thank you, Miss Stuart. I did not know you were aware that I had married."
Miss Stuart's voice suddenly changed, and although she retained her composure and aloofness, it was almost as if another being had emerged. Her lithe, graceful body stiffened, her eyes narrowed, and a harsh tone betrayed her agitation.
"I am informed of everything that takes place at Eastmont, Mrs. Johnson--and it has been brought to my attention that you were tardy this morning!"
"But, Miss Stuart, this is the first time I have been late in almost two years."
"That is exactly why you have been called to my office, Mrs. Johnson. Many young girls who marry feel they no longer need their jobs once they have husbands to support them, and they become lax about their employment records. Relying on a man to take care of them is a very naive assumption on their part, Mrs. Johnson. You will do well to not make that mistake!"
As Ellen exited the office, she was not sure what her emotions were. She was grateful that she did not have to endure one of Miss Stuart's envelope-stuffing performances, but she shook her head in bewilderment at the content of their conversation. Miss Stuart's warnings about men being so unreliable and how a woman should never depend on them! Were they just another form of Suzanne's coercion? Or was Miss Stuart speaking from her own personal experiences with a man--or with men?CHAPTER 4
Is Anybody Listening?
Looking back, Ellen still marvels that the biggest, wealthiest corporation in the entire world, a monopoly with no true competitor and with the capability of providing the most technologically advanced telephone service in the world, would use that same technology to coerce, repress, and intimidate the operators who provided that service.
Visualizing the old Eastmont switchboard, Ellen recalls with much anguish the ever-present worry of each operator sitting at the switchboard that she might make an error while someone from management was listening in on her or that some facet of her work would be unacceptable. Time has not diminished the contempt she felt for the Bell System's archaic methods of control and discipline and the constant drive to increase the office productivity.
From the moment an operator plugged her headset into the switchboard at Eastmont until she walked out the operating room door at the end of her workday, she had one never-ending worry: Is anybody listening?
Excerpted from Behind the Voice with a Smile by Nelly Nallon. Copyright © 2014 Nelly Nallon. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Return to Eastmont, 1,
Chapter 2. The Beginning, 4,
Chapter 3. Suzanne Stuart, 8,
Chapter 4. Is Anybody Listening?, 16,
Chapter 5. The Close Scrutiny Method, 22,
Chapter 6. Amy Richardson, 25,
Chapter 7. Pensions Plus Productivity Equal Profit, 31,
Chapter 8. Gisela Werner, 35,
Chapter 9. Myrtle Norton, 48,
Chapter 10. Shannon Townsend Juliano, 54,
Chapter 11. The Personal Envelope, 68,
Chapter 12. Barbara Marone, 76,
Chapter 13. Christine Simmons, 84,
Chapter 14. Kathleen O'Malley, 92,
Chapter 15. Frieda Franke, 99,
Chapter 16. The Office Index, 109,
Chapter 17. Steffy Mickiewicz Shanowski, 114,
Chapter 18. Alma Hopkins, 122,
Chapter 19. Seniority Reigns!, 132,
Chapter 20. The Surest Way To Get Ahead, 141,
Chapter 21. The Seeds of Intimidation, 146,
Chapter 22. The Midnight Visitor, 151,
Chapter 23. The Eighteen-Year-Old "911" Operator, 158,
Chapter 24. Katherine Robertson, 173,
Chapter 25. Mary Volker, 177,
Chapter 26. No End to the Surprises, 182,
~About the Author~, 211,
~Author's Note~, 213,