During the summer of 1980 between my sophomore and junior years at Hamline University, I worked as a telephone operator on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift on the last existing cord board in Saint Paul, at the downtown Radisson Hotel. The toggles and cords were mounted in a long, narrow black desk with metal-rimmed holes in a vertical wall panel. Two operators sat side by side, clicking the cloth-wrapped cords into room-numbered holes to connect the calls.
To listen in, we flicked a small toggle at the bottom of the cord, but we did not do this—at least, not very often. We were expected to greet every caller with a cheery “Thank you for calling the Radisson Saint Paul!” As we became tired each evening, our voices became more nasal, like Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine, the cord-board operator who always said, “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” It took less energy and air to talk through our noses. Like Ernestine, the phone department supervisor must have been complimented on her legs back in the 1940s, as she still wore short black skirts, heels, and rolled-under hair. Every evening she’d call us several times from home between the TV shows she was watching, unable to imagine that we could do our work without her assistance.
The kindly older woman I worked with was round from sitting and fond of the puppy pictures in the National Enquirer. As a newly minted feminist, I read Anaïs Nin, Violette Leduc, Monique Wittig, and other obscure French authors. We spent our entire shift in the small, stuffy room, getting up only to use the restroom. A television was mounted in one ceiling corner, so we could monitor the pay-for-TV movies. Again and again, the alien burst forth out from a crewman’s chest, then later, full grown, unhinged its saliva-dripping jaws to fight with the sweating and undershirt-clad Sigourney Weaver.
I was by far the youngest phone operator. The other women chatted about soap operas and read Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and gossip magazines they’d flip through between calls in the hot basement room. Halfway through our shifts, we ordered grilled sandwiches from the room service menu to break the boredom, the movie droning in the background, the gruesome alien being reborn again and again. I usually kept my mouth shut, having little to discuss with the other operators, but I relished the click of the plugs as they slid into place, the interweaving black snakelike cords, the snap of the released plug, the physical rhythm of the work.
I quit at the end of the summer to return to my classes at Hamline and take a job across the street at the Midway Motel, but to this day I cannot pass the Crowne Plaza without saying in a nasal voice,“Thank you for calling the Radisson Saint Paul!”