This is supposed to be about my job at the phone company. But I can’t write about that unless I talk about Russ the Moose Syracuse, a DJ who had the late night slot on KYA when I was in high school. So before I can tell the phone company story, I need to go back to high school and also reference a movie with W.C. Fields called “It’s a Gift,” because without that reference, nothing else will make sense. If it does make sense.
The bit about a man named La Fong is in the W.C. Fields movie. It’s part of a long (in YouTube time) segment in the film that takes place in the early morning when an exasperated Fields is trying to get a little shut-eye. I believe his wife has booted him out, so he’s sleeping (or trying to sleep) on a wooden porch swing.
Watch it if you can spare the six minutes:
You laughed, right? At least at the coconut?
Russ the Moose used to play the part where the insurance salesman comes along–he played it often enough that kids who listened to him could do the whole bit. All you had to do was ask, “Do you know a man by the name of La Fong?” and everyone standing around you at lunch would respond with the spell out: capital L, small A, capital F, small O, small N, small G…La Fong, Carl La Fong!! Well, maybe you had to be there.
It was high school, c’mon.
Right after I graduated, I decided to take some time off before entering college full time. I needed to find a job quickly to keep my parents off my back. The reason I decided to defer college for a year and go to work had to do with earning some rent money so I could move out of my parents’ house, which was necessary for my sanity.
I was certain that I could find gainful employment despite my lack of typing skills or any other skills for that matter. But I had a partial familiarity with three foreign languages, and some cute outfits, so I put on my pantyhose and went job hunting. Did I have a resume? No. Did I have any previous work experience? Not unless you count teaching Sunday school for a year. Did I have a plan? Yes, I had a plan. I would go to all those companies that were dying to hire an eighteen-year-old inexperienced high school graduate with no marketable skills. How did that pan out? Well, thanks to a friend of my sister’s who took pity on my unemployable ass, I got a job as a telephone operator with AT&T, affectionately known then as Ma Bell.
This was back when you had to use an operator to do anything other than make a straight phone call. Long distance calls used to be expensive and most people didn’t want to pay for a call if the person they wished to speak with wasn’t around. So you could make a person to person call, which meant that an operator (me, for example) would announce the name of the person the caller wished to talk to when someone answered the phone. If that person was unavailable to talk, there was no charge. What if you took a long trip and wanted to let your loved ones know you had arrived safely? You could call your house and ask for yourself, person to person. Of course you weren’t home– you were in Cleveland or somewhere. But your family would know that it was you– and so, by the way, would the operator– and they would also know that you were alive and well. This happened all the time. We could always tell, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it except ask sarcastically if they would like to “leave word” for themselves. Callers never did that. Dead give away.
Once, a guy asked to speak to a “Kevin Matthew Anderson” and the person on the other end yelled, “Oh my! It’s boy!!” before clearing her throat and saying that Mr. Anderson wasn’t available to come to the phone right then. And no, the caller would not care to leave word.
So our job as operators was to ask to speak to a specific person, or ask if someone would accept a collect call (when the caller was broke or just cheap). Most of our calls were of that nature, although we occasionally got other requests– checking on how much a call might cost, or trying to track people down at other numbers.
We had to go through a lot of training, memorize what to say under a variety of circumstances, and follow procedures at all times. Not much room for creativity, although one of my operator friends tried out different accents when he got bored. He also filled his pipe with a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, which he smoked during his breaks.
But that’s another story.
Let’s just say this wasn’t the most challenging job, but I made some good friends at the phone company and Ma Bell eventually paid for me to go back to school. I also had good benefits, and I could make overtime if I worked holidays. Which is why I was working on Christmas Eve,1970. With minimal staff, in an unfamiliar office, I watched the minutes tick by and tried to stay awake. We didn’t get many calls, things were slow, and when things were slow you could practically die from boredom.
So, around 8:30, I get a call from a guy who wants to make a person to person call.
To Mr. Carl La Fong.
Capital L, small A, capital F, small O, small N, small G, and he wants me to announce the call and spell out the name. Of all the operators in all the world, I get this call!! No problem, I tell the guy, I’ve got this. I know the bit! The phone rings once, twice, and a woman picks it up. “Hello,” I say, and stifle a laugh. “I have a person to person call for a Mr. Carl La Fong.Capital L, small A….” and the woman cuts me off. “Oh, for chrissakes, Lou. Cut the crap. I know it’s you.”
Back in the number puhleze days, telephone numbers were 4 digits, and people would say hello to the operator by name. My home number was 7145 and the number of my father’s grocery store was 1007. Today don’t ask me where I left my glasses, my car, or if I had breakfast.
I love it that the operator HAPPENED to know the joke!