Back in the 1980’s, I ran a telephone switchboard in a Beverly Hills highrise of office suites. At the time, people who phoned places of business actually expected a prompt, friendly and efficient response from a live person in real-time.
Not as easy as it sounds, actually, given that I had nearly thirty different businesses–some with multiple lines to take calls for, and each with its own special greeting.
But that job taught me a little something about letting one’s ego write a check one’s ass can’t cash –specifically, I learned important life-lessons from three different clients for whom I handled reception and mail duties.
The first lesson came from a mouthful of an investment firm, Bishop, Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham, and Wong. Born tongue-tied, I struggled with articulating the name of the firm when I answered their lines, particularly with Rewald sandwiched halfway through that particular series of names. It always came out Elmer Fudd-like, with me switching my R’s and W’s.
No one called me on it though. The firm was actually based in Hawaii, not Los Angeles, and a phantom known as “Mr. Maines” picked up the firm’s messages and mail after hours. Never saw the guy. Never talked to the guy.
But it turned out that while I was taking phone calls in California, old Rewald was keeping busy in Hawaii writing checks his ass couldn’t cash…
Bishop, Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham and Wong was, in fact, a Ponzi scheme by Rewald and Wong. Bishop, Baldwin and Dillingham were the names of old-money families in Hawaii that Rewald and Wong chose to use. Rewald tried to blame the CIA which sparked a storm between ABC News and the agency. Bottom line, after a suicide attempt, Rewald went to federal prison. Wong followed.‡
Lesson #1: If it sounds too good to be true, someone has written a check their ass can’t cash.
My second lesson came from someone I did see on the job. Mel Blanc–yes that Mel Blanc–a delightful man who answered his own phone when he was in the office, and was never too busy to speak when I hand-delivered his mail or messages.
So what does Mel Blanc have to do with the topic of ego? He serves as a point of contrast in this my tale. Mr. Blanc was mega-talented. And he always treated me with the same level of respect I imagine he treated the brass at Warner Brothers. He was a class act.
Lesson #2: I had a right to be treated with dignity–even while working a clerical job during an era where sexual harassment and gender-discrimination was norm.
And that brings me to my third and final lesson gleaned from my days on a Beverly Hills switchboard.
One Monday morning when I was swamped with calls, I picked up for one of the law firms for whom I answered several lines, and asked the caller to hold so I could address all the calls in the order in which they came in.
When I went back to this caller’s line, he had hung up, so I continued answering other lines. The next time the line lit up, I answered with the name of the two lawyers in the practice, and the man began berating me for not getting to him quickly enough. I tried to explain that I was the only switchboard operator for nearly thirty offices, and asked for him for patience.
I didn’t get it. Instead the caller asked, “Do you know who I am?”
A dangerous question, to be sure. Did he really want me to answer?
But before I could formulate word-one, the man decided to tell me who he was. In the tone of voice one might reserve for, well, pond scum, he announced, “I am the husband of….” He proceeded to drop the name of a woman who was B-list famous. Or perhaps D-list would be more accurate. Double-D…
Having lived in L.A. for a couple of years, and having a boyfriend who bartended for special events at the Playboy Mansion, and having actually been there one time myself, I knew who this man’s wife was–she was Playmate of the Century if that was actually a thing, and Hugh Hefner’s former flame.
But the thing was, I didn’t care. I also found it mildly interesting a man defined himself by his wife’s accomplishm–er, um, assets…but I didn’t care.
I hung up on the man. And continued to do so several more times until he finally called back with a more contrite tone, beginning with, “Please, please, don’t hang up. I’m sorry I was rude to you, but I really need to talk to my lawyer…”
Well, now we are getting somewhere, I thought, and then I patched him through to his attorney.
Looking back, I wonder where the girl with those brass balls went. I could have lost my job, but I didn’t care. I was a college-educated young woman living on the opposite side of the country from the rest of my family. I had three female roommates, paid my own rent and bills, and was making it à la Mary Tyler Moore.
Besides, whenever I was treated poorly at any given clerical job, I picked up my stuff and left–and I usually ended up in a better place with a better job. Call it blind faith or the plucky confidence of youth, but I sometimes miss the girl I used to be.
That brings me to Lesson #3: Youth can afford to be opinionated. Maturity must pucker up and smooch some clammy old ass.
People assume that when you get older and more experienced in your career you have more freedom, but quite the opposite is true. You have less freedom–especially when you have a mortgage to pay, children to feed, and a retirement to fund.
There were many times in the last twenty-some years I would have loved to stop some dingleberry-supervisor mid-sentence to give him an honest assessment of his performance, or tell a control-freak principal that her incompetence is only exceeded by her arrogance, but I learned a thing or two since my days as a switchboard operator in Beverly Hills.
Bottom line: When you walk into work, you trade your right to free speech for some scratch, so you can’t let your ego write a check your ass can’t cash…
Yours from the trenches,
Hot Flash Suzi