Alice’s New Career
August 21, 2012
Alice has a new job writing stories in the newsletter for The Place. It’s not officially a column yet, but she’s such a good storyteller that the powers-that-be hope it will become one.
The newsletter includes the menu, a crossword puzzle, snippets of news about The Place (its garden and grounds), planned outings, the schedule for bingo games and other recreational activities, proverbs, a photograph of the Employee of the Month (voted on by residents), cartoons, upcoming birthdays, etc.
Now the newsletter has Alice. The first piece she wrote was about the time Lawrence Welk visited the little prairie town where she grew up.
On the day this piece was published and available to residents, she said, “Everybody knows Lawrence Welk. I suppose I’ll be famous. They all read the newsletter.”
Off she went to lunch with great expectations.
Soon after returning to her apartment she called me to say that nobody had mentioned a word about her story. Maybe the Dapper Man had smiled longer than usual in her direction, but that could have been related to what she was wearing, something he always notices approvingly.
“Why didn’t anyone say anything?” she asked. The all-too familiar lament of the writer. My heart went out to her.
Her beloved Celia is gone. Dining room life is lonely and dull. She can’t hear the numbers called for the bingo games or the directions for any of the other activities, so she doesn’t join in on any of those. Outings with a group of people on a shuttle bus, people who would have to repeat whatever they say to her four or five times, hold no appeal.
A couple of weeks went by after publication and only one or two residents mentioned her story. Only staff members cheered her on, along with relatives and friends I’d sent copies of the story to.
Without Celia, she has little or no interaction with peers other than waving, smiling, and saying hello. (One day she wrote down all the names of the people she regularly greets going to and from the dining room and read them to me over the phone. She’d added them up: 45!)
But saying hello is not contributing much to life at The Place, as far as she’s concerned. The newsletter offered a way to participate.
She got back on the horse.
Her second story covered a day in her job as a telephone operator at the Bismarck telephone office when a state senator tried to call his wife during a blizzard in 1941.
This time when the newsletter appeared, people came up to her table in the dining room to chat about the story. They caught her eye when she passed by and chuckled and shook their heads, or approached her in the hallways and outside when she went for walks and reported how much they’d enjoyed it. The Dapper Man told her he’d liked it so much he’d read it twice. When she showed up at the hair salon for a shampoo and set, the beautician said, “The ladies can’t stop talking about your story.”
Now she’s dragging her heels about writing the next one. I suspect that part of it is a fear that it might not be as successful, but I’m committed to doing what Alice used to advise me to do when, as a child, I was tempted to insert my opinion into someone else’s business. “Keep your long beak out of it,” she’d say. And so I will.
(Imagine being a child who believes for many years that your beak is too long.)
The newsletter allows Alice only one 8 1/2 x 11 page (or less) in large print to tell the story. I’ve written both stories at greater length in this blog, but I thought you might like to read Alice’s version of one of them.
Here’s the one about the blizzard phone call, titled “No Bull.”
It is 1941. I am a telephone operator at Northwestern Bell in Bismarck, North Dakota. The State Legislature is in session.
Anyone that has lived in North Dakota remembers the cold, cold winters and blizzards. You would also remember how noisy the telephone lines became with the snow and wind packing on the line.
In those days everyone in the family old enough to drive did not have a car. So I walked eight blocks in the blizzard to get to work. I wore a blue coat over my dress and an orange felt tam (that I loved), and my snow boots. It was very important for telephone operators to get to work. I was paid $48 a month for this job.
Six local operators and six long distance operators sat at the “board,” as it was called. I sat down and picked up a signal and said, “Long Distance. may I help you?”
A man told me he was Senator So-and-So from Devil’s Lake, and he gave me the number he was calling from and the number he wished to call.
There was lots of noise on the line, but a woman’s voice answered, “Hello?”
I closed my key but a signal came in on my section of the board and I got on the line again. The senator asked if I could repeat what he said because his wife could not hear him. He told me he wanted to know “how the bull was,” so I said to his wife, “He wants to know how the bull is.”
I had to say it several times. The other operators were looking down the board at me, laughing and smiling as I kept yelling over and over, “HE WANTS TO KNOW HOW THE BULL IS. HE WANTS TO KNOW HOW THE BULL IS.”
I assumed he was a farmer, and I noticed that during a terrible blizzard he did not ask if she was all right or if the children were okay or even if the chickens were all right.
After my shouting about the bull so many times, the wife finally said she could not make out what I was saying and hung up.
Needless to say I did not vote for that senator when he ran again for office.
And so, as you see, Alice, who will very soon be 97, is finding a new career.