Yawning, Operator 2047 braces her feet on the metal footrest attached to the front of her tall chair so she can twist around without falling off to grab the white card hanging from its back by a clip. The large numbers printed on the card identify her to the supervisor trolling back and forth behind the long row of women. There are eight other supervisors like her in the hangar-sized room, each monitoring her own row of women. The women all sit in identical chairs with numbered cards clipped to the back. During peak hours, there can be as many as 400 of them creating a hum of murmured voices that seldom abates. It’s like working in a beehive.
Worker Bee Number 2047. So warm and personal. Dodie doesn’t know why that still surprises her, but it does. It’s not even remotely what she’d imagined when she applied for the job last summer. It had seemed so glamorous then. If only Mom and Dad had had the money to send her to college right away, she thinks now. She’d give anything to be up in Tallahassee with her friends instead of being here.
Suppressing another yawn that makes her blue eyes water, she turns the card over to expose the bold red letters that cry for “RELIEF” on the reverse side and slides the card back under the clip. Almost simultaneously, as though she had triggered it, the board in front of her suddenly bursts into life, most of its small lights gleaming red.
No need to check her watch. It’s nine o’clock; two hours to go. Groaning inwardly, Dodie leans back and looks behind the backs for the supervisor. There she is. The tightly permed brown hair peeks out from the row of heads to her right. She’s standing between two chairs about halfway down, tethered to the board by the coiled cord dangling from her headset as she speaks into the mouthpiece. She sees Dodie looking at her and holds up two fingers.
Dodie nods, then turns back to the board and pulls out the rear cord of the only unoccupied cord set at her position. Might as well start chipping away at the red lights. Most of them, she knows, are pay phones full of impatient snowbirds who waited until nine o’clock when the rates went down, then dropped a dime in the slot and dialed “O.” Not her favorite customers to deal with, but when you work at night, it’s a fact of life. That she’ll be working at night for a long time is also a fact of life. You have to pay your dues before you are rewarded with the coveted eight-to-five shift.
She seats the end of the cord in the hole beneath one of the lit red bulbs on the 538 strip. The prefix identifies the location of the caller as the Beach, probably the lobby of one of the big hotels now filled with seasonal tourists. She flips the toggle forward, puts on her cheery voice and says, “Operator.”
A full fifteen minutes later, after she has completed that call and several more, the supervisor appears behind Dodie and plugs in.
“Thanks, Marge. My back teeth are floating.” Dodie pulls her own headset cord from the board and heads out to the Ladies Room. It’s true; she does need to pee. But even more, she needs to walk around a bit or she’ll never make it to her shift end at eleven. It’s been an awful day and she’s exhausted.
In the Ladies Room, she says hello to the three women standing in a cluster by the sinks, and pushes into one of the stalls. No toilet paper. Great. She turns around in time to catch one of the women pulling a face at the others. The expression is quickly replaced by reddened cheeks, and the three leave the bathroom.
Big surprise, Dodie thinks as she settles gratefully onto the toilet in the next stall. She has become accustomed to the feeling that she has single-handedly cleared the room.
After she washes her hands, she rests her arms against the cool porcelain of the sink and lets the cold water from the tap flow over her wrists. She feels a little foolish doing it, but figures it can’t hurt. Even though the old-timers swear by it, she doubts the chill to her wrists will perk her up. Catching sight of the reflection in the mirror above the sink, she grimaces at the image looking back at her. Even if the cold water does wake her up a little, it won’t do much to help the appearance of the person in the mirror. No one should look that old at nineteen. Her normally glossy ponytail hangs behind her head like a tired, coffee-stained string mop and dusky circles frame her bloodshot eyes. She hasn’t slept much since the whole thing began.
Yeah, it’s been one heck of a day, the latest in a long line of them. And tomorrow promises to be no better.
For Dodie, growing up in Miami was like growing up in Everywhere, USA. No one is “from” Miami, no one that she knows, anyway. Everybody is a transplant from somewhere else, usually some place up North. As with other coastal cities in Florida, the Miami draw is the beach and, most of all, the weather. But unlike many other coastal Florida cities and towns, Miami is a booming metropolis, about one million people strong.
Despite being about as far south as you could get in the continental US, Dodie’s Miami doesn’t seem much like “Old Dixie.” Little of what she knows about the American South touches Dodie’s life in any way. Few people seasoned their speech with “ya’ll” or ever invited ya’ll to “come have a glass of sweet tea and set a spell.” But scratch the surface, and what you’d find is southern to the core.
Her high school was as white as the bread that scented the air with tempting aromas wafting from the Wonder factory a mile away. Well, at least until the first handful of Cubans appeared during her senior year. “Racism” was something the TV commentators talked about, not a factor in Dodie’s reality. She’d heard the word “nigger,” of course, but it wasn’t in her vernacular. Other than the coloreds she saw outside the big apartment complex on Dixie Highway she drove by everyday on her way to work, Dodie never really noticed many Negroes. She knows there are a lot more up in Overtown and Liberty City, but that’s so far removed from the Miami she knows, it’s like another planet.
Recent events have brought the coloreds to the forefront of Dodie’s mind for the first time. As she thought about it, she’d realized that she had only ever known one colored person in her whole life. Ida had been there on Thursday when she got home from school, standing in the kitchen ironing as she listed to her “stories” on the radio.
“Hi, Ida. What’s happening in Young Doctor Malone’s life?” was her standard greeting every Thursday afternoon of eighth grade. While she ate the milk and cookies Ida set out, Dodie listened as Ida filled her in on the heart-stopping crisis the young doctor had faced during the previous week. She enjoyed hanging around with Ida on Thursday, but she’d never thought of her as anything but someone who ironed and liked soap operas. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Both, Dodie supposes now.
One Month Earlier
The announcement comes as an insert in everyone’s paycheck, which is hand-delivered to her by Marge. That’s odd, she thinks. Why such personal service in the normally impersonal workplace?
“Open it,” Marge says without preamble as she hands the white envelope to Dodie.
Dodie does as she’s told and sees right away that there is an additional piece of paper in the envelope with her check. Oh, no, am I getting fired from my first job? With a shot of fear, she looks up at Marge, who nods.
Hands shaking, Dodie pulls out the pink slip of paper and reads the words mimeographed on it.
“On Monday, February 10, the first Negro employee at Southern Telephone Company will begin working as a long-distance operator. Management urges everyone to treat our new co-worker with respect.”
Her mind in a whirl, Dodie doesn’t grasp what she’s reading. She expected the pink slip of paper to be the proverbial “pink slip” so completely, the actual words don’t register.
“Yes. And she’s coming to our board.” Marge’s voice holds the same note of impending doom as it might have had she been talking about a fatal diagnosis.
“Um…” Assaulted by conflicting thoughts, Dodie finds herself speechless, a rare occurrence.
To be honest, she can’t say she’s ever noticed the absence of colored people on the switchboards. But she can’t say she ever looked either. And had she thought about it, which she hasn’t, she would have assumed there were coloreds in other parts of the company. This is Miami, not Little Rock.
She feels a little surge of pride when she realizes what the announcement means. Good for you, Ma Bell. Surely, this can’t be a bad thing. But judging from the look on Marge’s face and the forbidding tone of her voice, she figures it must be.
Marge leans in conspiratorially. “We all have to be careful. She’s probably a plant.” She lifts her eyebrows. “You know, from the NAACP.”
“No, surely not. Really? How do you know?”
“Oh, I hear things.” Marge gives her a knowing look. “That sort of thing is going on all over, you know. It’s in all the papers. They’re just looking to stir up trouble. That’s how they are.” It might be possible for the supervisor to display more disapproval on her face, but Dodie can’t see how.
Dodie’s mouth is poised to give voice to the doubt she feels, but looking at her supervisor’s pinched face, she holds her tongue.
“Good. Mind your Ps and Qs. Spread the word.” Marge turns and marches down the hall, her back stiff with self-importance under the striped shirtwaist dress.
As it turns out that Dodie doesn’t need to spread the word. Marge hand-delivered that week’s pay envelope to every operator on the switchboard, even those who don’t work her shift. She came in early and stayed late to ensure she had the opportunity to “warn” everyone.
Dodie assumed that Marge was playing Chicken Little. But she soon learns that the operators on the other seven switchboards have all received the same pink slip, and a warning to go with it. During the coming days, discussion of the announcement commands more attention in the Operators’ Lounge than the television.
“Can you believe it? A nigger operator.”
“I know! This used to be a good place to work.”
“And it’s only the beginning. You mark my words. They’ll descend on us like a plague of locusts.”
Dodie is ashamed she doesn’t speak up. But she’s the new kid on the board. And besides, she likes and respects her co-workers. Many of them have helped her as she struggled to learn the job. Hearing such conviction in their voices makes her question her assumptions. What if they’re right?
To be concluded in Part 2
Written for The Tenth Daughter of Memory