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Behind the Lines:

Talking to the Harvard Operators

By Michael W. Miller

There is only one office at Harvard where the phones never ring. It's not easy to find. Follow a narrow alleyway off Mt. Auburn St.--between Tech Hifi and Claverly Hall-and turn right, towards a tiny, ivy-covered, square brick building. Walk up a few steps and in through the front door, and there it is: a small room with low ceilings, fluorescent lights, wall-to-wall carpeting, a few plants, and eight or nine desks.

But inside this quiet, nondescript office---seemingly cut off from the rest of the world-is the nerve-center of the entire University, from accounting to zoology, from Daniel Aaron to Rita Zusman. And, ironically, no staff spends more time on the phone then the dozen women who work in this office: Harvard's information operators.

On an average weekday, about 4000 people dial 495-1000 (the University's general number), 495-5000 (student information), 495-6000 (Business School information), 495-7000 (the Harvard and Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory), and 495-8000 (Radcliffe information), all of which connect to the operators' office. Each operator sits in front of a long bank of flashing lights and colored buttons, wearing a clip-on earphone and a near-invisible, transparent, cable mouthpiece that keeps her hands free. When a call comes in, the console emits a faint beep and the operator answers it with the press of a button.

All this technology gives the office an unsettling, almost surreal quality; the first-time visitor sees eight people with their hands at their sides, smiling and talking to the wall in front of them. But gradually, the scene becomes familiar: soon it becomes possible to detect the ultra-polite, unemotional tone of voice that is the trademark of only one profession, and finally, one makes out a phrase here and there and recognizes the cant of Harvard operators:

"Hello Harvard... thank you for waiting, I'll connect you... what's the first name, please... spell the name, sir...ah-four nine fah-eevc, seven eight oh one... that's V as in Victor... would that be off-campus or on... surely, I'll ring for you... I'm sorry, only three numbers at a time... surely, is that undergraduate, staff, or faculty..."

But behind this cheerful facade lurks a series of woes and frustrations that daily plague the Harvard operators. The first is what one student calls "the read-War-and-Peace-and-play-a-few-games-of-Monopoly-while-you-wait syndrome." During the office's peak hours, it is not uncommon for the operators to receive more calls then they can handle at once, in which case they simply answer the calls in order. The worst crunch comes between noon and two in the afternoon, when the operators take their lunch hours, and on weekends, when the staff is reduced from eight to three. (On football Saturdays, a fourth operator is brought in.) As it happens, these are the very times that most callers have occasion to get to the phone.

In other words, during the periods when the operators are busiest calls can take a long, long time to be answered--19 or 20 rings is not unheard of. Often, the result is that the operators are treated to a good measure of Harvard's finest invective.

"You're killing yourself, working a mile a minute," says one operator who has worked the Harvard switchboards for more than 35 years, "and some kid comes on and says 'Where were you, operator, knitting?' You don't say anything to them, of course, but you just feel like tearing your hair out."

Then there are the callers who ask the operators everything but a Harvard phone number. "People just say, 'Oh, call Harvard, they'll tell you anything you want to know,'" says one operator. "And we do. We get long-distance calls on Saturdays asking us the football scores. We can tell them, too-we keep our little radio tuned to WHRB."

"I've had a call from someone in California who wanted to know what city Yale is in," remembers another. "And if anything goes on in Cambridge, we're expected to know it."

"One night, I got a call from someone who wanted to know if I knew anything about the planet Saturn," recalls Sara Chalfen, one of a handful of "casuals"-men and women who work part time to augment the regular staff of 12 operators. "He wanted to know the names of the stars that circle around Saturn. I tried to find him someone at the Smithsonian who would know-I don't know how successful I was."

Finally, there are what operator Kathy Ladue calls "the little-red-schoolhouse calls." "There are some calls I can't believe," she says. "Some grandmother will call and want to know if Johnny's in class. I'll tell her I'm sure I don't know. and she'll say, 'Well, when you see Johnny, will you tell him...."

She interrupts herself to answer a call. Someone wants to know the number for the Divinity School. "What particular department are you looking for?" she asks. He's not sure; he's trying to find a good babysitter and he thought the Divinity School would be "a good group to approach." Kathy suggests Harvard Student Agencies and the Student Employment Office, reads out both numbers, and the caller hangs up.

"More little-red-schoolhouse calls," she continues. "The other day, someone called and wanted to talk to 'Yvonne, in the dorm.' I told him I'd need more information and he just said, 'Well she's in the dorm.' Or once I had a call asking for 'the library.' 'Sir, there are over a hundred libraries at Harvard,' I told him."

Another call comes in, for Hemenway Gym. "That's an easy one," she says right away: "4-9-5, quadruple-2" She smiles. "Blodgett Pool's an easy one too: 1-7-8-9-it's just a one and then seven-eight-nine. And if you can remember that, you can remember the International Office: 2-7-8-9. You have to be careful not to confuse the International Office with the Center for International Affairs, and you have to be careful not to confuse the CFIA with the Center for Science and International Affairs. If someone asks for CSIA, it often sounds like CFIA, and you have to look out because the woman at CFIA gets all huffy if she gets CSIA calls. And the other day, I had a call for 'ock-sockle,' and I just said 'What?' It turned out it was for the O C S-O C L."

The console beeps again: a request for Michael Watson in Eliot House. "I have a Michael D. Watson in Eliot-K and a Michael K. Watson in Eliot-D," says Kathy. "It might be a typo but I'll give you both numbers."

She sighs. "Sometimes when it got slow," she says, "I would quiz myself on how many numbers I knew by heart. The last time I counted, it was 450." She gestures to the push-buttons on her console. "I know a lot of them just by the pattern of the numbers. Like I'll know a number is a box in the top corner--something like that." She stops and thinks for a moment, and then breaks out laughing. "I guess I'd be totally shot on a dial phone."

In the five years that Kathy has worked as a University operator, probably no one has spoken to more Harvard students (except her fellow operators), and yet probably no one knows less about them. "Some of them are rude, some of them are real nice, some of them are stuck up, some of them are real friendly," she says. "It's hard to form attitudes about them... I meet them as voices, and only for 20 seconds apiece."

From the desk next to Kathy's, Sara Chalfen breaks in. "You know, it's funny you would say that, because just the other day I met someone over the phones. I made a slip of the tongue--you know what 'talking backwards' is, like 'balking tackwards'--well, that's what happened. It wasn't deliberate, I just made a stupid mistake and it sounded really strange. We just started joking about it-me and the guy on the other end-and we started talking about what kind of night it was; the guy was telling me how busy he was, things like that. And this guy had a Texan accent, and I like Texan accents so I asked him where he was from, and he told me Houston. And you know, I just didn't feel like taking the bus home that night, and I didn't want to call my father to come pick me up. So I asked him if he wanted to walk me home. And he did."

Someone asks if she's seen him since that night. "Yeah, I've seen him since then. 'I've also gotten him on the phone since then, too. I got him on my line twice the other day."

She takes the earplug out of her ear to fix her hair. "You know, it'd be nice if people knew we weren't just cold-blooded. We do have feelings, we don't like it if people hang up on us, we don't like it if people are rude to us. And we do like it if people talk to us."

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