What’s an “Operator?” – (Thanks, Rick Beato!)

Rick Beato is one of my favorite YouTubers. He is a fantastic guitar player and music teacher who dissects songs that often go over my head (as a non-musician), but enough of the time I do understand enough to keep watching since I do love music and played flute and piccolo for many years. I watch him even if it’s just to hear music-speak; it’s all fascinating.

He had a segment with Mary Spender, another musician YouTuber, and they talked about Jim Croce’s song “Operator” which was written in 1972. While the majority of the discussion was music-oriented, I was piqued by his mentioning items in the song that younger people probably have no clue about. I am talking about the time around 1972 in this post.

I’m writing this specifically for my kids and grandkids, but I’m spring boarding off you, Rick… thanks!

Operator Jim Croce

Baseline: Our Family’s Telephone

This was on the kitchen wall at the house where I grew up. I made the pic bigger so you could see the numbers in the middle of the dial.

Operator Jim Croce
First, there is the dial. You put your finger in the hole and spin it around to dial the number. This is why we still say “dial a phone” – we did! The area code says 305… the same area code written there decades after it changed to 407. And the phone number where I grew up – 855-9485 – always imprinted in my mind. This phone was corded, as they all were then, with a short cord until they the made longer ones when I was a teenager. Still, the long ones didn’t go very far and got really tangled, so that was annoying.
Operator Jim Croce
Same phone showing the short cord.

Party Lines

Until I was about 11 years old (1972), we had a party line. That’s when several households shared one phone line. Not number, but line. When our phone number was called, we had a certain ring. When the other houses’ numbers were called, they had their own distinct rings. Some rings were two short rings, a break, and then a longer ring. Something like that. But, if you wanted to… and many did… you could pick up the phone and listen in on the other people’s calls. You could talk, too, but mostly people just wanted to listen in. Privacy was not a thing back then. The major reasons, clearly, were the party line and the short phone cord.

If you needed to make a call and someone from the party line was on their phone, you either had to wait until they were done or tell them you needed the phone and hope they hung up. More often than not, they did not hang up and you got angrier and angrier the longer they talked. I distinctly remember my mom trying to get one of the teens off the line for quite awhile and ended up slamming the phone down after calling her a bitch. I asked what a bitch was and my mom, ever the avoider, said, “I said, ‘witch.'” I can hear her yelling bitch all these decades later.

Slamming a Phone Down

Operator Jim Croce

Busy Signal

If you were on the phone and another person was trying to call you, they got a busy signal. They would get a busy signal until you hung up the phone. No one could get through. There was no call-waiting until I was an adult.

We didn’t have Caller ID until well after call-waiting came around.

There was one phone number per house until I was in my late teens when parents got their own lines in their bedrooms. Which we used when they weren’t home because we could lie on the bed and yack for hours. Our parents would call their line and know we were on it. For hours. We always got in trouble, but did it anyway.

It’s so odd to think we know exactly who is calling now. People can call and get a ring even if someone is talking to us, and we can go anywhere there is a signal, even lying on our beds.

Prank Calls

How many of you remember either placing prank calls during slumber parties or receiving dirty prank calls on Saturday nights?

I remember both.

We were giggling girls calling random numbers and giggling more when some unsuspecting person picked up their phone. We would do any number of silly things; ask them what they were wearing… ask, “Is your refrigerator running? Then go catch it!” It’s embarrassing me to even write that I did these things. At the time, they were hilarious.

The scary ones were the calls in to us. Heavy breathing men who, now I know, were probably wanking. We didn’t know that then, though. Men who tried to talk dirty to us. We would quickly hang up and nervously laugh about what they said.

The worst were when they tried to terrify us with murder or rape talk. We couldn’t hang up fast enough, but not before we clung to each other in fear.

It’s odd thinking prank phone calls are a thing in our past that shan’t be repeated.

“Help Me Place This Call?”

In the first line of the song “Operator,” we have an operator who, among other things, was someone who would dial for the caller.

“Operator, oh, could you help me place this call?”

Operator Jim Croce

ATT – American Telephone and Telegraph Company operator. ATT acquired Bell Telephone in 1885 and was the phone company until 1984 when the US government broke ATT into parts, eliminating their monopoly.

Women (and they were always women) were hired to be telephone operators and they had a few jobs, but mainly (from what I know), they talked to people who dialed 0 (zero) on a phone. Back then there was no 911, so if there was an emergency, you dialed 0 and they would connect you to who you needed… fire, ambulance, or police.¬†Operators were initially around the country and you never knew where you would get an Operator so that made it difficult if you needed emergency help, so they were eventually hired more locally, in an area code, for example.

Area Codes

Sorry this is jumping around, but things are popping out as I write that need to be addressed before the next item. Didn’t expect the rabbit hole with the word “operator,” did you?

Before I was born, phone numbers were different than they are now. They often combined letters and numbers. In 1972, they were different, too. Then, we had seven numbers unless we were calling out of our area. Then we had to use the area code before the seven numbers. An area code grouped regions together.

The area code for Orlando and surrounding areas was 305 when I was growing up. That went all the way down the southeast to Key West. So if we were calling anywhere in our area code, there was no extra fee. As Orlando and everywhere else grew, they needed more area codes and in 1988, Orlando’s changed from 305 to 407. It was quite distressing to lose our 305, but now no one gives it a second thought. Today, Orlando also has 321 area code numbers.

As we all know, even if you are calling next door, you have to dial the area code. Ten number dialing is totally normal for us now.

Pay Phones

Operator Jim Croce
A phone booth with the folding door.

In the olden days, we had to pay for calls – to dial the pay phone (hence its name) and to pay for long-distance calls (“distance” being quite arbitrary). If you didn’t have money for a call, for many years, you were out of luck. Rarely, you could beg an operator (who you could call even without money) to place a call for you.

Operator Jim Croce
Note the dial with numbers and letters by the finger slot. Phone numbers used letters in my mom’s day. By the time I was dialing a phone, only numbers were used. See also where you put the coins at the top? You had to carry a lot of change for long-distance calls.

In my mom’s time, calls were a nickel (five cents). In mine, they were a dime (ten cents) and that lasted for a very long time. In 1981, Bell Systems raised prices around the country to a quarter (25 cents) a call.

To make a long-distance call, you would need many quarters to pay for the call, putting the coins in as the operator told you how much to put into the phone. I always found it interesting how they knew the amount I put in and would continue the call. If, while you were talking, the money/time ran out, the operator would break in tell you to deposit more. If you could put a lot in, you wouldn’t be interrupted as much and, as far as I remember, if your call finished before you ran out of money, the coins would drop down into the coin return thingie.

The Coin Return

Operator Jim Croce

An annoying thing happened a lot; when you put a coin in, it would just drop to the coin return. Did the phone or operator think you put a Canadian coin in the phone? You would put the same coin in, trying several times, and invariably, it would fall through to the coin return slot. Occasionally, the repeat try would actually work and that was worthy of a “whoopeeeee!” as it echoed inside the small enclosed booth.

It was normal for everyone to check the coin return for coins someone forgot to get out before they left the phone booth. If there were phone booths today, I would be checking for loose change in them, that’s how ingrained that behavior was.

Operator Jim Croce
Accurate meme.

Collect Calls

If we didn’t have money, but had to call someone, we could… or would… call collect.

Me: “I need to make a collect call to 305-855-9485. My name is Barbie.”

Operator talking to the person called: “I have a collect call from Barbie. Will you accept the charges?” I could hear the operator ask that question.

Whomever I was calling would either accept or refuse the call. If they refused it could be one of two reasons; one, they didn’t want to talk to me, or two, I was calling to let them know I was okay and they didn’t need to accept the charge. We would do that if we needed to check in and didn’t want to spend money.

What machinations!

Operator Jim Croce

Third Party Calling

Third party billing could be demonstrated best by my I-Ran-Away-From-Home story.

Me: “Operator, I need to make a call and charge it to (random area code and number).”

Operator: “Okay.”

Me: (talking to parents for free and some stranger got charged for the call) – (gift: bad karma)

Occasionally, the operator would call that third number to see if they would pay, then I would hang up and try another operator. Invariably, within a couple three calls, I could call for free without my parents ever knowing. Years later, I learned people did not have to pay for those stranger calls. I was quite relieved.

Finding a Number

Jim Croce’s next line is:

“And give me the number if you can find it”

At one time, operators did look things up for us. Remember, there was a time, in my lifetime, that there were no computers. They had to turn the phone book’s pages just like we did on this end of the phone.

Operator Jim Croce
A public pay phone booth with hanging phone book, encased in a plastic cover.

While there were phone books hanging on pay phones, it wasn’t uncommon to have a page ripped out because someone wanted to save the number for future reference. I doubt many people thought, “Gee, what if someone needs this page?” They were in their own heads and kept the page they wanted.

Once computers came around, a new type of operator was born – the Information, or 411, Operator. I had a partner who was a 411 operator and it was one of the strangest jobs ever. A call-center job, people asked the oddest questions.

“What is the airline closest to the airport?”

“What is the closest taxi to my house?”

Operator Jim Croce
Antique Call Center

They thought they called 911 all the time and 411 finally started forwarding it instead of trying to explain the person needed to hang up and dial again. Alternately, 911 had the same issue with people calling to ask for the number to Shakey’s Pizza.

Phone Books

Yes another obsolete item attached to the phones of the past.

Operator Jim Croce
A stack of smaller phone books. Some were several inches thick. The Yellow Pages (what they were called) were ads. The White Pages (also what they were called) were residences.
Operator Jim Croce
Notice the 7-digit numbers. No area code needed to be used wherever this was.
Operator Jim Croce
Yellow Pages Ads

Phone books came every year in December for the year ahead. The ads cost money and it was a big thing to be in the phone book. It was how everyone found what they were looking for.

When people were short, they would sometimes sit on a big phone book to lift them up. In the car, kids at the dinner table, in high chairs.

Come December, when we knew the new phone book would be out soon, a lot of people made Phone Book Christmas Trees. We did this a lot. Tons of glitter. Messy.

Operator Jim Croce
How to make a Phone Book Christmas tree.
Operator Jim Croce
Glitter Phone Book Christmas Tree

Who Does Not Hang Up On You?

The second-to-the-last verse says:

“Operator, oh, let’s forget about this call
There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to
Thank you for your time
Ah, you’ve been so much more than kind
You can keep the dime”

It was wonderful to hear that soothing female voice on the other end at times, especially when you were scared and waiting for the police or ambulance to arrive. She was someone who would talk to you and not randomly hang up.

I know many of us felt like Jim Croce, only having that voice to validate our existence.

Bless the telephone operators.

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