In the fall of 2005, I decided to switch temp agencies — not that sorting emergency information cards in the small windowless back office of a Jewish nursery school was particularly unbearable, but it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d gone to film school to do. If I was going to roam the city doing demeaning and low-paid work, I wanted to do it for people who would treat me like crap because that’s what I deserved, for daring to want to work in Hollywood.
So, though a friend’s recommendation, I found the mythical entertainment-only temp agency that actually lived up to its promise of only staffing industry positions. And within a few days, I was off on my first job, filling in for a switchboard operator at a major studio I’d spend the next week referring to as Uncle Steve’s Dream Factory.
(No one will see through that.)
Having never worked a switchboard before — only knowing those 1940s mechanic monstrosities, with the cords and plugs that pert young ladies in pencil skirts skillfully manipulated — I didn’t expect the dark cubicle tucked into the corner of the IT department, occupied by the other switchboard operator and her sick three-year-old, who stared blankly at a portable DVD player playing a CGI feature produced by Uncle Steve.
The chunky light-up buttons of the switchboard box, which could look up numbers and connect calls and was likely as old as the company itself, seemed easy enough to master. Armed with a few pages of notes about which calls went where, I was ready to put on my headset.
“What else should I know?”
“Nothing, really. Just ignore the crazy people.”
“Yeah. You know. They’ll call. It’s no big deal. Just let them talk if it’s not busy.”
Iris didn’t suggest taking notes. But by lunch I had already started to collect stories.
Someone, during those five days, asked me what the point of having a main line for the studio was, and the easy answer was that Iris and I were directory assistance, sorting the people with serious inquiries out from those who wanted to know where to report defective DVDs or submit headshots.
But really what we were doing was shielding the studio from freaks and fakers. Which is not easy if you were raised to never hang up on a phone call.
Most of the time, people were polite. One man, even though he was annoyed with my inability to answer a question about why Wal-Mart was stocking the same DVD with three different types of packaging, agreed to call the home video information department with his question. I started reading the number to him, and he asked me to “hold on just one second. I’m a quadriplegic, so it takes me a moment to get situated.”
I tried to be as polite as possible in return, but after two days I heard Iris’s weariness creeping into my own voice, found myself reaching for the same blunt expressions. “One moment.” “I’ll connect you to our job line.” “One second for submissions information.”
There was a line of buttons on the box that were just for getting rid of the annoying or unwanted, buttons which would transfer calls to automated voice messages that would offer some minor amount of information. Blunt recordings of “You need an agent to submit a script.” “No positions are available at this time.” “We cannot connect you directly to Uncle Steve.”
The Nigerian man, whose phone connection was so static-ridden that it truly sounded like he was calling from flat desert, didn’t understand me when I tried to tell him that I needed to transfer his call to one of those extensions. My intonation was hard for him to grasp, but I didn’t have the same problem. He told me that “I have seen a few of your movies and I would like to send you my screenplay and learn what you think of it,” and he kept repeating himself, over and over, and finally I stopped trying to explain and I sent him to the Submit line mid-sentence.
Iris took a call at 9:45 AM one morning, one of those calls that involved a lot of shouting and repetition. She turned to me immediately afterward, grinning. “He said that he told one of his ideas to someone here, but couldn’t say the name right. So I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but you’re slurring your words. I can’t understand you.’ And then he said, ‘Well, that’s because I’m still drunk.'”
A woman I could see perfectly in my mind, from the impeccable, immovable big hair to the beige Dress For Less skirt-suit to the no-heeled pumps, called four times in the space of one afternoon. She was “in the neighborhood,” leaving a meeting with Disney on Ice, and thought she’d see if she could drop off some light-up dog tags for Uncle Steve. “I’ve got all this stuff, it’s perfect for the entertainment industry. If he could just see them…”
There were lines I picked up, to hold these people at bay. Words to communicate to these unwanted callers that I was sorry, but there was nothing I can do. “The departments are by last name only.” “I’m sorry, I don’t have a listing for that person.” “I’m sorry, Mr. K’s office only takes direct calls.” I said these things, held the silence for that deliberate, final beat. Waited for the penny to drop.
It didn’t work all the time.