Christa Orth, Writers' Retreat Fellow

Christa Orth, Writers' Retreat Fellow



[Applause] and now I'd like to introduce my reading from my chapter and aerial chorus edited collection in Portland fear which one [Applause] the year was 1973 and Steve Harmon was plugged into a switchboard in a downtown building on South West 4th Avenue and oh his late shift had just begun the clock struck 9:00 p.m. the bewitching hour Steve answered the line Pacific Northwest Bell directory assistance how may I help you man on the up on the other end breathes heavily for a moment then asked for the number for the Riptide Stephen never been there but he knew the Riptide was a gay bar he gave the man the number quickly he knew it by heart the man paused for a few moments in the nastic festively coming out tonight when Pacific Northwest Bell hired Steve in 1973 he became the first male phone operator in Portland his sister got him the job as soon as the phone company started hiring men the company had also started to hire women as lineman so here Steve was sitting in rows of women answering the directory assistance calls and hence was the only male voice on the phones the directory assistance operators had to be plugged into their board at all times on their shift Pacific Northwest Bell valued customer service and timed each call colors were never to wait more than 15 seconds for the number they were requesting the operator sat with a big portland general directory in front of them they were rubber finger condoms to flip the pages faster faster there was a red button on the right hand side of the switch word that you can use to do that disconnect calls but you were never supposed to push that red button unless someone was obscene or threatening during the first week answering directory assistance Steve got several teeth breathers on the line when he answered it the college would pause don't say anything and then hang up one day Steve answered and the guy started screaming oh my god getting her cut and get a man's job Steve had short hair but the caller had obviously expected to hear a woman's voice hostile callers continue to verbally abuse Steve if you were a man doing a woman's job you had to be gay a number of people called Steve queer or one caller talked about Jesus Steve supervisor Christine called him off the board Monday for a private meeting she listened in on one of those hostile calls she hopes he was taking it all in stride the colleges weren't used to a man's voice he was embarrassed that his presence was causing which havoc but he felt it was important for Christine to know it hurt when the products called him a Steve's cheeks burned he took a deep breath I want you to know I'm gay he told Christine it was the first time he'd ever come out at work Christine was supportive she told him if he ever got a hostile caller not to argue with them not to take their abuse but just click them off Steve didn't feel embarrassed anymore collars were just going to have to get used to his voice the next time a caller calls him a Steve didn't hesitate he pressed the red button click Steve found other people like him in the serving workbook bail he made fast friends with Lynn another operator a sissy butch she never wore a dress she never wore broad knitted FEM women Steven Lynn sat across from each other on slow shifts they chatted and played around Lynn took Steve out to a women's bar under the bridges in southeast the first time they walked in together the woman tried to kick him out Lynn had to vouch that he was gay there were other gay fixtures of the phone company in the name of good customer service each week the company published a new updated directory for the operators to flip through each alphabetic section was divided by a neatly organized a list of frequently called phone numbers every gay bar in Portland was on that frequency around 9 o'clock directory assistance was flooded with calls for the smoky sexy bars like demons tavern which is now darcel 15 dark spell and the Riptide pretty soon Steve had memorized them all when Steve answered the line he wasn't allowed to have open conversations with the collars but that didn't stop gay men from asking going out tonight and that didn't stop Steve from telling them his own coded line [Applause]

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