A Call to the Queen
Those of you who have known me for some time and/or have read my book, “Running For The 2:10”, know that while in high school, I worked for the phone company as a long distance operator. As reminder and introduction to this story, here is an excerpt to set the stage:
“My first job was as a long distance operator at the phone company. This was back in the day when there were “boards” and “plug-ins” and one had to call the operator to place a long-distance call. As a high school student, I attended classes four hours per day and worked four hours per day under the Oakland Public Schools, “Outside Work Experience” or OWE program.
The phone company was a harsh place to work back then. The operators were mostly women and all of our movements during the workday were strictly monitored. We sat on stools in a windowless galley-like room facing the board while waiting for the lights to appear indicating a call to the operator. Then we would plug into that light and say ever so sweetly, “Operator.” We would then connect the caller to the number they were calling with another plug and a light would show on the console to indicate conversation. When the console light went off, it meant the conversation was over and then we would promptly unplug the in and out connections.”
It was in this daily grind of a job, in the summer of 1967, I was handpicked to arrange a long-distance call I will never forget.
With my supervisor plugged in and standing right next to me to monitor my every word, I was told to plug in to a certain light on the board with my incoming cord. There, an unknown caller was waiting to place a person-to-person call.
“Hello, this is the operator. How may I help you?”
A cheery male voice replied, “Oh hi there. I would like to place a person-to-person call to Aretha Franklin at area xxx, number xxx-xxxx.
I had not been nervous at first. But when he said “Aretha Franklin” I almost fell off my stool, much to my supervisor’s amusement. Remember, I was only 16 years old at this point and the closest I had ever gotten to Miss Franklin was singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the living room with my sisters or trying my best to mimic the torturous love I knew nothing about when I sang “I Ain’t Never Loved A Man “ at the school talent show.
And since the call was person-to person, I had to have the name of the other person and managed to ask, “And whom may I say is calling?”
The male voice replied not with a name but with a phone number. I looked at my supervisor in fear and frustration and she just nodded her wigged head in the yes position, which meant, “Go with that because it’s all you are going to get.”
And so, I placed the connected plug into the outgoing light and dialed Aretha Franklin’s number. By then, I had climbed down off the stool and was standing at the board. No way I could sit down for this.
The phone rang once, then twice and I thought no one would pick up and I would never get this opportunity again. Then on the third ring,
“Hello,” a young child’s voice spoke loudly into the phone. There was a lot of chatter and laughter in the background. It almost sounded like a party, but as I waited I was able to listen closer and realized it sounded more like just a gathering of family. A big, talkative and happy family.
“Hello. This is the long distance operator.” I was smooth as glass.
“I have a person- to- person call for Miss Aretha Franklin from phone number xxx-xxx-xxxx..” Without another word, the phone landed with a thud on some hard surface. I thought we were done.
Then after a few seconds, another “Hello” in that unmistakable sweet and lyrical voice I knew belonged to the Queen herself.
I swallowed hard. Twice. Back to smooth I said,
“This is the long distance operator. I have a person- to -person call from phone number xxx-xxx-xxxx for Miss Aretha Franklin.”
“This is Aretha Franklin.”
“Hey Ree”, the male voice said.
“Hey…..”, she said as I did my professional duty and flipped the microphone off, leaving them to have their private conversation.
I took other calls during my shift that day, but had one eye on that magic light the whole time. The conversation went on for about fifteen minutes before the light went off and I could unplug the call.
I never knew who the caller was and my supervisor never gave any hints. I did ask her why they picked me to do the call and she said,
“Because these grown chicks who work here would have kept those numbers and who knows what they would have done with them. I knew you wouldn’t mess it up.”
“But you were there the whole time! How would I have done that anyway?”
She looked me in the eye and said, “ Please, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to hear Aretha’s real life voice!”
From the real life voice of the “Queen of Soul” to my ear for if only for a second, it will stay forever and ever in my heart.
Copyright © 2018 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte