And so it starts…
That Monday, the day people have started calling “Black Monday,” Dodie is filled with trepidation as she pulls her old Ford into the lot two blocks from the STC building. She has no idea what to expect. The rumor mill predicts everything from demonstrations in front of the building to National Guard escorts for the new employee. She finds herself dawdling as she locks the car and starts walking.
The front of the building looks just as it always does. She shows her badge, and takes the elevator to the fifth floor.
“Are you ready for this?”
She turns toward the woman riding beside her. It’s someone she doesn’t know, but even so, she can tell the woman has dressed up a bit today. She looks more like she’s going to a wedding than to work. Dodie wonders if she thought she might be on television or something.
“Sure.” Her answer seems a bit flat in response to the somewhat sarcastic tone of the other woman’s voice. But so far, she has avoided getting into the snide, and frankly offensive, conversations that have swirled all around her since the announcement. And she’s not about to start.
“Well, we’re in for it now. This is just the first, you know. If we don’t do something, the next thing you know, the place will be infested with them, and there won’t be a chair fit to sit on.”
Dodie is shocked by the naked disgust in the woman’s voice. Coming from an attractive woman in a pink suit, it’s like finding a cockroach in the sugar bowl. Then the words hit her. Do something?
The woman looks at her over her tortoise shell glass frames. “You’re with us, right?”
Dodie is saved when the doors slide open on her floor. “Uh, gotta go, I’m almost late. See ya.” She bolts from the elevator and heads for the bank of small lockers lining the hall outside the room filled with switchboards. A glance at her watch tells her she really is late. She twirls in the combination, exchanges her purse for her headset, and hurries to the time clock to punch in.
After she takes her place at the board and plugs in, she still hears the echoes of the hatred spouting from between that woman’s Rose Petal Frost-covered lips.
“Do something…You’re with us, right?” The words send a frisson of fear down her spine.
Like a wave, the room goes silent from front to back. The absence of sound lasts only a few seconds, and is followed by a second wave, as the operators resume their work. But the buzz of voices has a quality that is slightly off-pitch.
Dodie runs the current call card through the time stamp and turns to look. Several seats away, she sees Marge and another supervisor. Between them is a thin colored girl who is probably about twenty but looks much younger. She wears a simple plaid dress and her hair is smoothed and pulled back into a tight French twist. But it’s the face beneath the rolled bangs that catches Dodie’s breath. The girl looks absolutely terrified. She never raises her eyes to meet the daggers flashing from the eyes of several women around her as she takes her place on the board.
At that moment, Dodie vows to befriend her. She knows full well what it is like to walk into this job, doubting your ability to master the corded monsters all around you. And she didn’t have to face the resentment that infects the air all around this poor girl.
The call comes on the fifth cord set at Dodie’s position. No need to plug this one in. Only the first cord set is currently handling a call on the board. She knows a call on one of the last three indicates a call directly to her position from somewhere in the building. Shortly after she began at STC, a call on one of the last three cord sets was usually an announcement about a training class or Payroll with a question about her withholding.
Dodie’s heart skips a beat. In the three months since “Black Monday,” a call to her position has become a daily event. At first, they were polite, suggesting that she might want to give more attention to her job and less to her coworkers. When she got the first one, she had gone straight to Marge and asked what was lacking in her work. Marge’s reception was cool, but then, she hadn’t ever been much in the warmth department.
“Your work is fine.”
It was enough to reassure her. She chalked it up to a practical joke. It wouldn’t have been the first one.
But the calls continued, each more aggressive and uglier than the last. It became clear that the problem was not the attention she wasn’t giving her job as much as it was the attention she was giving Rose, the new employee. Seems some people aren’t happy that she’s not “with" them.
Dodie is nothing if not stubborn. The more they threaten, the more she digs in her heels. She’s taken to having lunch in the cafeteria with Rose. The poor girl has been eating a bag lunch in the little park down the street from the building, and it wasn’t easy to convince her to brave the cafeteria. But she’s done it, and aside from the dirty looks, which they’d both ignore, there hasn’t been a problem. Others had actually started joining them. Not everyone is as prejudiced as whoever is making the calls to her station.
She’s tempted to ignore it, but it could be an emergency. She sighs heavily and pulls the toggle back on cord five. “2047.”
“Seems like you got a hankering for a bomb in your mailbox, nigger lover. That’d be a real shame, nice house like your daddy’s.”
Tears in her eyes, Dodie sits listening to the emptiness on the line after the caller disconnects until a tap on her shoulder startles her.
“Eleven o’clock, Dodie. Time to go home. I know you don’t love this place that much.”
Dodie turns and gives her friend Mary a weak smile. “Right.”
She pulls her headset cord free of the board, and joins Mary as she walks toward the hall.
“Hey, you alright?” Mary touches Dodie’s arm, her voice filled with concern. She’s seen the remnants of tears in her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired. Yawning, you know?”
At the front door, Mary says, “You sure you’re OK. You want a lift to your car?” Mary gestures to the car idling at the curb. It’s her only car, and her husband picks her up when she can’t get a ride with someone else heading toward the Grove.
“No, really, I’m fine. See you tomorrow.”
Dodie gives a wave at the car pulling away from the curb and heads toward the lot.
February 12, 2000
The ballroom in the Grand Regency Hotel is sparkling as the elegantly dressed woman pauses in the doorway, her hand held by her tuxedo-clad husband. Soft music from the small band near the dance floor floats through the air as they make their way toward the head table. It’s slow going, because at every table, someone stands to congratulate her.
Finally, the couple reaches the dais. She smiles as she looks at the large banner on the wall behind the table. “Happy Retirement!” It’s been a long time coming, she thinks as she takes her seat.
After a sumptuous meal has been served and cleared, one by one, friends and co-workers take the podium and speak glowing words about her accomplishments. Finally, the CEO turns toward her.
“I have the great privilege of presenting our guest of honor. I know that no introductions are necessary. She’s our favorite techie and I, for one, am going to miss her terribly. I know you feel the same. Ladies and gentleman, Vice President of Information Services Rose Franklin!”
The room bursts into applause as Rose joins the CEO at the podium. He leans down and kisses the diminutive gray-haired woman’s cheek and then sits down.
As the applause dies down, she adjusts the microphone.
“My friends. I am so incredibly honored by this wonderful send-off. But I had no idea you were so anxious to get rid of me.”
She pauses while the two hundred people in front of her laugh.
“Before we get to the dancing, which is really the only reason I came,” she smiles as the audience chuckles again, “I’d like to say just a few words.”
“When I started at STC 46 years ago, I never dreamed I would be standing here today. You all know your history; I don’t need to tell you how hard it was. Over the years, many of you have told me what a trailblazer I was, how brave I must have been.”
Rose takes a sip of water, and continues.
“You are so wrong. I was a timid little mouse who needed a job. That’s all. I couldn’t have been more terrified than I was the day I first walked into that room full of switchboards.” She smiles as she sweeps the room with her glowing brown eyes. “I know some of you must be old enough to remember what a switchboard is.” The responding laughter is accompanied by groans.
“That room was filled with white women. I was like a chocolate drop in a bowl of marshmallows. I know that they all weren’t ready to kill me on the spot, but I believed then that a lot of them would have welcomed the chance. Actually,” she says, her face turning serious, “I still believe that today.
“I never thought I’d make through the first week. And I wouldn’t have, except there was a young woman on that switchboard who really was brave. A woman who probably never realized it, but she was the real trailblazer. She had the courage to stand up to incredible pressure and become my friend. I can only imagine what she must have suffered to do so. I know what she sacrificed.
“Every time I was ready to throw in the towel, I could hear her say, 'Hang in there, Rose. It will get better. It has to.’
“Every time I was terrified to take the next step, her words of encouragement filled my head.
“It’s because of her that I stayed at STC through those horrible first years. It’s because of her that I went back to school and learned how to become,” she turns and smiles at the CEO, “your ‘favorite techie.’ And it’s because of her that I am here tonight.”
Rose stops, and looks down at the podium for a long moment. The room is completely silent. Finally she looks up at the audience again, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
“And it’s because of me that she isn’t here tonight. One night when she was getting into her car after her shift, she was attacked. When the security guard found her hours later, she was dead, beaten horribly. The authorities never found the cowards who killed her.
"So tonight, I think it is appropriate for us to honor her. My friends, please join me in applauding the true woman of courage, the real heroine in my story, Dodie Williams.”
Rose beams, tears running down her cheeks, as everyone in the room stands and enthusiastically claps their hands along with her.
When the applause finally fades and everyone takes their seat again, she turns to the band and says, “Get your boogie on, Boys! There’s folk want to dance here.”