Mar 22, 2012

I Became A Bell System Operator 35 Years Ago Today.

TSPS Console
"Will you accept a collect call from John Smith. . . Your number, please. . . Please deposit $1.35 for the next three minutes. . .Long Distance calling person to person for Sally Peterson..."

 I can't believe it's been 35 years since I began my career with Pacific Northwest Bell as a  long distance operator. It was very exciting. Those were the days of BlazerMania, Saturday Night Fever, Jimmy Carter, and Star Wars!

On March 22, 1977 I started my training in downtown Portland on the TSPS console we used to manually process person to person calls, collect calls, "Zenith" numbers, international calls, "messenger calls",  and coin calls.(click on the picture for a larger image)
Remember, kids, when I began with Ma Bell in 1977, there was no such thing as a cell phone. Not everyone had touch tone phones- they had dial phones! Many homes still had their telephones hard wired to the wall.

It was in my blood from the start. My grandmother and many of her  sisters worked for Ma Bell in the 1930's. On cordboards. In the Tabor central office. My great aunt Mary was a long distance operator for over 40 years, retiring in the early 1960's.

 My sister and I both worked for Ma Bell at the same time, and even in the same  phone company office for a few years. We didn't tell our co-workers we were related. We let them figure it out on their own. When I finally left that office, we told the few remaining people we hadn't told yet that we were brother and sister...and they didn't believe us!!.

After my initial training, I worked every kind of shift you can imagine each week because I was on the bottom of the seniority list.  A typical week looked like this: Monday-Friday, a split shift. You'd work from 7:30am-11:30am, then have four hours off in the middle of the day and come back to work from 4:30-8:30pm.  On Saturdays and Sundays, I usually got swing shift, 2:30 to 10pm. That's right! I'd get off work at 10pm and have to get up and go to work at 7:30am the next morning.

We got 15 minute breaks every two hours. If you had to use the bathroom at any other time, good luck! There was a red "bathroom" card in a slot by the exit door from the operator center. With over fifty operators on duty at any one time,  only one person could use this card at a time for emergency bathroom use. You had to get up and grab that red bathroom card before anyone else got to it!

During my first nine months as a low seniority long distance operator, I worked every holiday. New Year's Eve. New Year's Day. Easter. Fourth of July. Halloween. Even Christmas Eve and Christmas, for crying out loud!! But the overtime was great. Double time and a half bought  my first color TV and bedroom furniture!

The Bell System didn't tolerate tardiness or calling in sick. Every tardy or sick day was an "occurrence". In a 12 month period, having over 4 occurrences (tardy or sick day) or being sick for 7 or more total days would get you in serious disciplinary trouble!!!  I witnessed many of my co-workers get fired for being late too often.

I also learned- the hard way- you're NEVER, ever late for a meeting at the phone company. Meetings started on time. If you were late to the meeting, you were met with a locked conference room door. And when the meeting was over, you were guaranteed a scorched earth lecture from your manager in their office. I was only late for a meeting ONCE.

There was a positive side to working this long distance operator gig. I'd only been working for the phone company for three weeks when my sister, who also worked for Ma Bell, told me to get myself over to Oregon Telco Credit Union and get myself a car loan. So I did!!  Just like that, they gave me a car loan. And I bought a brand new 1977 Toyota Celica! After only three weeks on the job!

  And it got even better! Ma Bell paid for college! I quickly signed up for a couple of classes at Portland State University. And that's how I got promoted. I was at my boss's desk asking for the tuition reimbursement form when the District Manager walked up to talk to my boss. He noticed the tuition reimbursement form in my hand and asked my what classes I was taking.

After I told him what classes I signed up for, he said, "Did you know that out of all these people you work with, you're the only one taking advantage of free college?"  I didn't know that.

I must have impressed him. Because a couple of weeks later, I was promoted from Operator to Residential Service Representative, after only nine months as an Operator! Everyone told me you usually had to work in the operator salt mines for at least two years before they considered you for promotion!

I spent a few years as a Residential  Service Representative. The walls were painted bright orange and purple. The desks were all painted orange. If you wore a white shirt, the paint would rub off on your shirt. People could still smoke at work. And they did. Like chimneys. I hated that. One hour in a conference room for the weekly morning meeting and that room looked like Cheech and Chong had camped in there for a month. We suffered the smoke filled room all the time and no one cared one way or the other. But I hated it.

We hawked Trimline phone packages and long distance plans and extra extensions for the bathroom in between making collection calls to deadbeats for $35 phone bills.  Every day, in between incoming phone calls, we'd  make collection calls from huge batches of "TD advice notices"-- TD meaning temporary disconnect. Every desk worked a different phone number prefix, for instance, 238, or 771, or 256.

We'd call people who hadn't paid their phone bill and tell them they had to go to the phone company public office or the local drug store by 3pm or we'd disconnect their phone service. No answer? Get a busy signal? We'd slap that customer on the temporary disconnect list, and their outgoing calls would be cut off sometime between 3 and 4pm.

Disconnecting someone's phone service was a very effective way of getting them to pay their phone bill. It was also very effective at making people extremely angry!!! This was the character building portion of the job. You had to take the abuse with calm and poise. And in between these nasty collection calls you'd have to try and sell trimlines, princess phones, extra phone jacks, extensions, etc.

But we didn't sell actually customers telephones. We sold the idea of renting more phones. Customers weren't allowed to own their own phones! You had to rent them each month from Ma Bell!!. Which led to one of my favorite jobs as a Service Representative. Working the Unauthorized CPE desk. (CPE= Customer Provided Equipment).

On the Unauthorized CPE desk, we'd get a list from the local central office test deskmen (yes they were all men then) of telephone lines that had more of an electrical load than their billing records indicated they should have. My job was to call these people and tell them to unplug their unauthorized illegal phones. I'd also send them an official looking, scary, threatening letter from Ma Bell.

A week later, I'd have the test desk MAN test the lines. If the customer hadn't removed the unauthorized, illegal phone from their line, we'd disconnect them, just like that. Bam. After all, it was the Bell System. We don't care, we don't have to!.

Once a year we'd have to watch a horror film. Mandatory. It was called "CI 24". Company Instruction 24, part of the massive volume of Bell System Practices. The CI 24 movie showed you all the different ways you could try to steal from Ma Bell, and all the different ways Ma Bell would catch you, fire you, and kick you to the curb.

My favorite part of the movie showed a guy who took a Ma Bell backhoe from a job site. He was caught by Ma Bell secret police (yes, Ma Bell actually had their own secret police!). At that point in the movie you's see a huge rubber stamp come down on the movie scene accompanied by the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil. FIRED!! Said the graphic. 

At the time of the 1984 AT&T phone divestiture, I chose to go over to the fun side of the phone world and be a Business Service Representative at Pacific Northwest Bell. A great time was had by all. We sold services like Centraflex, PBX stuff, like crazy. Instead of a phone company monopoly, it was the brave new, competitive wild, wild west of telecom!!

The spiffs were much better on the business side!!! Sales contests, Awards banquets, Learjet trips to Seattle for training (just don't touch the CEO's liquor cabinet in the rear of the plane)!  Hundreds of dollars of gift certificates to Costco and other local stores, goodie bags, the works!!

Then I left Pacific Northwest Bell, and eventually moved over to AT&T inside sales, and then outside sales. Road warrior. Planes, trains and automobiles.   I eventually left AT&T for greener pastures and better things.

The Ma Bell buildings in Portland we worked in?

"Park and Stark"-- Where the TSPS operators, Directory Assistance Operators, Mobile phone operators, and stacks and stacks of switching equipment lived... who knows what's in there now? I don't.

The Marble Palace SW Oak and Park- the one with all the Microwave towers on top-- I have no idea what's in there now.

The Fourth Avenue building, where I was a Residential  Service Rep-- sold to PSU and the City of Portland.

One Main Place, where I was a Business Service Rep-- our floors leased out to some bank or law firm.

421 SW Oak Street- where I was also a Business Service Rep-- Qwest recently moved their last telecom equipment out of this. Everything gone. After over fifty years as Pacific Northwest Bell headquarters, the building was sold.

But those were great times with the Bell System and its corporate descendants. We grew up there. We met our girlfriends and spouses, and best friends there. We raised our families and built our careers working there. We went on strike together. We got promoted to management together. We played basketball and softball together. We watched the World Series and NBA playoffs together.   We knew everybody and everybody knew us. Most of us had started with Ma Bell at about the same time.  It was one big happy family.

I will always have a Bell Shaped Head, even though I no longer wear the Bell and Chain. (By the way, is there a particular reason you haven't paid your phone bill yet?) 


Randy Miller said...

Great blog entry.
I was hired into PNB as a TSPS operator in 1973. 4 words - BEST SUMMER JOB EVER. I was the second man in the unit.
Anyway, thanks for the trip to memory lane.

Dave K. said...

I was a cordboard operator for PNB in the marble palace 4th floor in the late 70s. I was one of the few male operators in unit 6. I have never seen any other blogs about operators from PNB before. I wouldn't mind talking to some former operators from back then and there. Dave K. formerly of portland.

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Anonymous said...

I started on TSPS in 1985 just after divestiture. Our office also had SOST which was a "newer" cord board for ship-to-shore radio calls. All calls were ticketed and manually timed. Only a select few worked SOST because the calls were bloody hell expensive and when a call disconnected you'd have to be right on top of it so the customer would not be overcharged!

Anonymous said...

Yes there is! The Telephone Pioneers of America have a museum in Phoenix where they have a TSPS2 console on display.

Unknown said...

From unit 3 ( cord boards) to DA to ESS Dial. Those were the good old days !!

John B said...

I've got you beat by just a few years. I hired on SW Bell in 1974 right out of High School starting as a Directory Assistance operator and transferring over to TSP about a year later.

Wild times for a teenager as there were 5 or 6 of us guys working next to women from their early 20s on to those who had started, I kid you not, before the U.S. entered WW2!
Those older ladies were right scandalized by our wearing Levis, Polo shirts & tennis shoes.

Due to the Equal Opportunity Act, Bell prioritized placing people in non-traditional positions so, I had to wait nearly 5 years before I could successfully bid a job outside where I spent the rest of my 30 years before I retired in '04.

Operator 92 off duty