Bill the drunk came down first, then lanky Ed, followed in quick succession by lots more. And so it was, that particular Saturday, there were no operators able to work, to answer the phones for our 300 clients.
Early in the morning, I sat at the phones, alone, waiting for the world to wake up.
We’d just got settled into our new office on Geary Boulevard. Later we would add another table and another 300 clients, Lori would join me, I would invent the Line Seizer device, and we’d buy a voicemail company. But just now, none of that had happened.
Operators were called OPs, because we abbreviated everything, kind of as a style thing. Our motto was “Network OPs are Tops!”
Normally, two OPs worked as a team, sitting across from each other with phones in the middle and message racks to the side. This was a system that Bob and I developed, way back when.
Today, nobody sat across from me. I didn’t know how this would work. And now the calls started coming in. One wave. Another. And another. It was getting real hectic, and now somebody was banging on the door downstairs. Open during the week, on the weekend it was locked, so I ran down the stairs to open it.
It was my friend Dennis. I dashed back up the stairs, and he followed, curious at my behavior.
Dennis and I had met as writers at the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, and had stayed friends through his cab-driver and photographer phase, and through my Simple Simon Bookkeeping, and Thumbtack Bugle phases. Several times I’d borrowed money from Dennis for my schemes, and, by the simple expedient of repaying him, we’d stayed friends.
I don’t recall why he’d come by; he was just on the way to somewhere else. I pointed to the chair across from me.
“Have a seat,” I said. He sat down. He started telling me about something, but suddenly I got an idea.
“Here, Dennis,” I said, “Put this on your head.” He stared puzzling at the Plantronics headset. It’s a small plastic hoop that goes over your head, with a tiny plug to go into your ear, and a thin microphone before your lips. I looked Dennis in the eye.
“Dennis,” I said, “How would you like to be OP for a day?”
“Sure!” he said.
I showed him how to answer the phone, gave him the brief version of what to say, how to mark the message down, and how to file the messages in the message boxes.
Just in time, for here came a big wave of calls.
Some hours later, I sent him to the liquor store with cash for sandwiches for lunch. Towards the end of the day, more sandwiches for the evening meal. Toward closing time at midnight, we sat back between the few calls, and shot the breeze.
Dennis had just dropped by, but he stayed for a week, answering calls every day. One day, clowning around, he fell off his chair, and put his elbow through the window pane. He wasn’t hurt, and I called a repairman to come and fix it, while Dennis and I, bundled up in coats against the cold draft, kept answering phones. Dennis was so apologetic.
“I am so sorry,” he said, for the tenth time. I smiled.
“Dennis,” I said, “If you like, you can break out every window in the place.”
What a pal!