Callers Beware

The best part of having a good job was freedom from poverty. When I was slinging hash at the café, I was thankful while counting pennies to pay rent and walking to work to save gas; but it made me want to break into a yodel realizing I could now put two dozen eggs in the grocery cart along with fruit and even some fancy crackers. “Health insurance” and “paid vacation” became reality instead of terms used by people of another world. My compensation, $300 a month plus commission, made me feel like a million dollars. I sold my car to a neighbor for $200 and, dancing for joy, purchased a 1972 Gold Duster. I missed seeing the road flash by through the rusted-out floorboard of my old car, but the heater in the new one was Heaven on earth.

The “plus commission” part of my compensation fed my competitive nature to a frenzy. The faster I moved through the calls, the more ads I took which meant higher sales which meant more money in that commission check. I arranged everything on my desk for speed. I made it my goal to take the ads without asking the caller to pause or repeat. I kept fresh ribbon cartridges at my fingertips so I could change the typewriter ribbon without breaking speed. The only one who could keep up with me was Debi Morris, the Ann Margaret look-a-like in the short skirt who sat on the other side of the room.

The large room was divided by a row of tables holding “clip books,” huge covers bound with ties holding actual copies of the daily classified section. We used these clip files to find ads for customers calling to re-run, cancel, or change an ad. We actually cut them out of the paper and glued them to the “kill form” or “change order.” The ability to retrieve ads to a screen and press a key to cancel was not even a glimmer of a dream. On one of these tables also resided the dreaded “beeper.” As long as one or more caller was on hold, this thing pulsed a loud, irritating, tone. This serenade was accompanied by the supervisors shouting “There are (number) calls on hold” as they paced the length of the room. This situation made the song “If I Had a Hammer” take on a whole new meaning.

Each side of the room had an assigned time, morning, afternoon, and lunch, to stand and file into the break room. Cigarettes burned in ashtrays all around as we analyzed new recipes, romance woes, the attire and attitude of members of the “other side,” and, my favorite, the latest crazy caller. The icing on the cake of this job was the entertainment and human interest factor. The phone number to Classified was printed in 72-pt Times New Roman at the top of the section every day. This made it easy for the public to find the number to call to place an ad, or to just call in general. Some fine Fort Worth folks thought the newspaper had an answer for everything. There was the elderly lady who called with an odd problem, “I live near the zoo and one of the peacocks is in my front yard,” she reported, “my little dog needs to tinkle and she’s afraid to go outside. She’s been holding it all morning.” I felt sorry for the lady who called every week for months to publish “LOST: Old, slick, black cat with ¾ of a tail.” How I wish I had kept a log of interesting callers. Sometimes it was sad. Once, the caller was an elderly gentleman who, in a very tired, sad, voice told me he wanted to advertise his home as free to anyone who would come and take care of him until he died. We did not take that ad but instead collected the information to contact his son.

The window to humanity was usually funny, often sad, and every now and then offered an opportunity to misbehave that I could not refuse. Sometimes, when the beeper had been going all day and the haze of cigarette smoke had given me a headache, I would do or say something a little off the wall. Such was the situation when I took the call from the gentleman who wished to publish this ad: “HAZEL: Met you at Louie’s Lounge, had breakfast at the Pink Poodle, stayed at the Do Drop Inn, want to marry you. Call 817-555-5555.” I paused for a moment trying to resist my mother’s gift for mischief that dwelled in my bones. But, resistance was futile. Instead of politely informing him that the Star-Telegram did not print such notices, I put my finger on the hang-up button and, before abruptly ending the call, lowered my voice, and breathed into the phone, “Hello Baby, this is Hazel.”

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