Did I Say That?: Bring back switchboards to save us from phone call purgatory

Joe Pisani bemoans the endless cycle of shoveling snow.

Joe Pisani bemoans the endless cycle of shoveling snow.

Joe Pisani /

“Due to exceptionally high call volume, all our staff are busy assisting other callers. We apologize for the delay. Please stay on the line, and your call will be answered momentarily...”

“Momentarily” is such a relative term. Does “momentarily” mean five minutes or five hours? I lost count of the times I heard that message on a recent call to an office, which will remain anonymous to protect the guilty. You can make a career out of waiting for assistance.

To add to my misery, I hung up and tried again because I got tired of languishing in Telephone Limbo, where you’re forced to listen to an endless loop of relaxing spa music by Yanni.

When I finally got someone, she took my name and date of birth and told me in the most pleasant voice imaginable, “OK, I’m going to put in a message ... and someone will call you back.” I responded in an equally pleasant voice: “@#%$^&*!”

Isn’t this something our presidential candidates should be addressing? Where’s the mainstream media when you need them?

Anyway, I have a solution. Unemployment is high, but we can create jobs for Generations X, Y and Z, working at what was once known as “the switchboard.” Automation and technology destroyed the switchboard, but we can bring it back and make America even greater again.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the men and women at the top of the corporate food chain will have to take a haircut on their salaries so the little people can get paid for doing something productive, namely answering phone calls and directing us to where we need to go.

My wait of 47 minutes was small compared to what you have to wait when you’re calling the Social Security Administration (if you can find a number) or a major airline, where you have to “schedule” a phone call before you can schedule a flight. We need the kind of people-to-people real time communication that made this nation great.

I’m not that old — at least I don’t think I am — but I’m old enough to remember the golden era of telephone communications, ushered in by Alexander Graham Bell and memorialized by Ernestine Tomlin the telephone operator, who always said, “One ringy dingy ... two ringy dingy.”

At my first newspaper, there was a switchboard operator in the lobby, who also served as receptionist. She was the most important person in the building. While reporters were pounding the pavement, looking for fake news — which was graciously provided by the mayor, the police chief and political leaders — Trudy was doing an outstanding job fielding complaints, responding to questions, sending through calls and taking story tips. If there was a problem with an ad, an undelivered newspaper or a bad headline, she was there to deal with it because, quite honestly, no one could ever find the editor or the ad director.

Everyone in town knew Trudy. Everyone valued her for the job she did — everyone except the West Coast corporate moguls who bought the paper, retired her and installed a new razzle-dazzle automated phone system that required you to push seven or eight or 80 buttons to get where you didn’t want to go, only to discover that you were sent to voicemail ... and no one would return your call for a week. Before the invention of voicemail, people actually picked up their phones.

When Trudy left and they shut down the switchboard, there was no one to field the flood of daily complaints. Absolutely no one in the building knew how to transfer a call. Irate customers who didn’t get their newspapers ended up talking to the short-tempered sports editor, who hung up on them ... so they cancelled their subscriptions. People who had a billing problem were transferred to the police reporter, who lost their addresses in a pile of arrest reports. Sources who wanted to give news tips about political corruption found themselves confiding in the janitor.

Every company needs a Trudy. Resurrect the switchboard and put America back to work!

Joe Pisani can be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.