Teenage Telephone Operator Reveals Loneliness In Terkel's 'Working' Sharon Griggins was 17 and working for Illinois Bell as a telephone operator when she was interviewed by Studs Terkel. This is part of Working Then and Now from Radio Diaries and Project&.
NPR logo

Teenage Telephone Operator Reveals Loneliness In Terkel's 'Working'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/495671371/495671372" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Teenage Telephone Operator Reveals Loneliness In Terkel's 'Working'

Teenage Telephone Operator Reveals Loneliness In Terkel's 'Working'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/495671371/495671372" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the early 1970s, Studs Terkel went around the country with a simple goal - he wanted to ask people about their jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: How would you describe your work?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm a processing clerk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm a carpenter from South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm running an elevator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: What do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I am the last live entertainment of the Sherman Hotel.

SHAPIRO: The result was a book called "Working." It became a surprise hit. But until this week, few of Terkel's actual interviews have ever been broadcast. For decades, the tapes were packed away in Terkel's home office. Our partner, Radio Diaries, along with an organization called Project &, combed through the recordings to produce a new series, Working Then and Now. Today, we have the story of a teenage telephone switchboard operator in Waukegan, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: I'm talking to Sharon Griggins. You're about 17, going 18, and you work for Illinois Bell.

SHARON GRIGGINS: Oh yes, Ma Bell. See, when you dial the operator, that's what you get. You get someone like me when you dial 0.

TERKEL: Oh, when they dial 0, we get you.

GRIGGINS: That's it because this is the only telephone office in Waukegan.

TERKEL: Could you describe it?

GRIGGINS: So it's a big, long room about half the size of a gymnasium, I would say. And it's - down both sides there's a whole row of switchboards.

TERKEL: How close is the girl sitting next to you?

GRIGGINS: Very close. I would say she'd be sitting not even five, six inches away from me.

TERKEL: You're that cramped?

GRIGGINS: Yeah, we're cramped.

TERKEL: So now describe it step by step, as though you were telling a little child what it is.

GRIGGINS: OK. Now, first of all, in front of you you've got about seven pairs of cords and all these lights that tell you where the calls are coming from. When a light goes on, that means there's someone waiting there. And you plug in and you ask them what they want (laughter).

TERKEL: Do your arms get tired?

GRIGGINS: No. Your mouth gets tired. It's the strangest - you get tired of talking when you've been talking for so long because you talk constantly for six hours. And it's hard.

TERKEL: Keep going on this point.

GRIGGINS: Well, you get to feel just like a machine because essentially, you're on this level of about seven or eight phrases that you use.

TERKEL: Like what?

GRIGGINS: You say, good morning, may I help you? Operator, may I help you? Then it's what number did you want, or I have a collect call for you from so-and-so. Will you accept the charge? Something like that.

TERKEL: You said it's pretty hard.

GRIGGINS: It is because what you're doing is, like, monotonous work. But for me, it's a great temptation to talk. Like, when I'm bored, I make some little comments or something or I talk with a Southern accent or a Puerto Rican accent. Or you try and make your voice really sexy just to see what kind of reaction...

TERKEL: ...You mean you horse around?

GRIGGINS: Yeah, I do. But if you get caught talking with a customer, that's one mark against you.

TERKEL: Because the company says you can't get too personal.

GRIGGINS: Yeah, you can't. You know, some people, they'll say, operator, I'm lonesome. Will you talk to me?

TERKEL: People do say that? Really?

GRIGGINS: They say, I'm lonesome. Will you talk to me?

TERKEL: And what...

GRIGGINS: ...And you couldn't. I says, gee, I'm sorry. I really can't. But you can't.

TERKEL: You're doing a great deal of talking, but the talk has nothing to do with actual human communication.

GRIGGINS: Right. That's very true. It's not really a lonely profession or anything, but it's one where you - not a whole lot of communication, even though that is your job.

TERKEL: Sharon, you've been quite marvelous for me.

GRIGGINS: (Laughter).

TERKEL: Do you see yourself as a telephone operator for the rest of your life?

GRIGGINS: No, no, no, no. Never. Never.

(Laughter) I did not become a career telephone operator. My name is Sharon Griggins. Back in 1972, I was a telephone operator in Studs Terkel's "Working." You know, I really remember working there very vividly. And I don't know, maybe that job helped me develop a keener ear for what people need and what people want. I think I became a really good listener. But let's get real - I don't think there's much romance in the work of a telephone operator. I think about some poor person at the end of that line who's sitting in a cubicle somewhere, saying the same things, taking down the same numbers for eight hours a day.

You know, automation is great in today's world, but it's hard to automate everybody's wishes and wants. I mean, we've all had those situations where all you want to do is talk to somebody and all you have is a list of menu options. You know, I still tell my kids, just always pick zero.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: Do you feel a machine could replace you one day soon?

GRIGGINS: Oh, sure, sure. It'd have to be some machine, though, 'cause if people knew how funnily they talked, how badly they pronunciate (ph), how hard it is to understand some people - a machine would have a hard time (laughter).

SHAPIRO: That was telephone switchboard operator Sharon Griggins from Studs Terkel's book, "Working." If you pick up a copy of the book, she appears under the pseudonym Heather Lamb. She is now the director of communications at the Seattle Public Library Foundation. Our series, Working Then and Now, comes to us from the Radio Diaries podcast. Tomorrow on Morning Edition, the story of a woman in a man's world - 1970s advertising.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.