Long Distance, May I Help You?

Working from Nyen to Fiyev.

Ramona Grigg


My first full-time job fresh out of high school was as a long-distance telephone operator at Michigan Bell in Royal Oak. It was the summer of 1955 and I was 17 years old.

The switchboard looked something like this:

JSTOR Daily/Getty

There were no men anywhere in sight. A supervisor walked behind us, back and forth, back and forth. Then she would stop. I could feel her standing behind me, watching, judging, and sometimes she would startle me by reaching across my arm to adjust something I’d missed or point to something that had some significance only to her.

We weren’t allowed to speak to each other when we were sitting at the switchboard. We could push a button to hail a supervisor but it was clear our priority was to those voices coming through those infernal, painful headsets, looking for help.

Our stations had rotary dialers and we had to manually dial a number to make a connection. We pulled long cords out of the console and plugged them into jacks in the wall in front of us.

I have no idea how it worked. I don’t remember. There were dozens of plugs and jacks and I somehow know which went where. Were they marked? I don’t know. I do remember that after a few days of training in front of a simulated switchboard I was ready to help anyone who had to call long distance.

Going through a long-distance operator was the only way you could do it back then. I would say, “Long distance, may I help you?” and you might say, “Los Angeles, California, Lotus 6403, please.” And I would plug a magic cord into a magic jack in the wall and dial Lotus 6403, and when I heard, ‘Hello?’, I would quickly do whatever it was I did to get out of there and move on to the next caller.

If nobody answered, I’d say something like, “Sorry, no answer, please try again later”, and I’d pull the plug on them.

Sometimes the caller on the line felt like talking. We were too busy to encourage that, but also too polite (mandatory) to be rude, so we had to fine-tune the conversation in order to move it along and get to the point. A male caller said once, “You have a beautiful voice”, and I said, too brightly, “Why thank you!” I paused when I should have moved along. I should have…