The Big Shot
Once, when I was a young man studying for the gallows (thank you, Mark Twain), I found myself in New York City. It was 1954. After a long and arduous summer of marching, rowing and learning to tie knots at the Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, N.J., my company had earned a 72-hour pass, so a few buddies and I decided to visit New York. It was my very first encounter with the big city. It was cool, early autumn, and very exhilarating. I only knew New York from the movies and half expected to see Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, in their sailor outfits, come dancing around the next corner, or Marilyn Monroe alight from one of those big, fat Chrysler taxis with the enormously wide grills. In fact, in the course of a half hour, I did see Wally Cox, star of the “Mr. Peepers” TV show, get into a cab, and, while gaping at the vastness of Grand Central Station, I literally ran head-on into Gene Lockhart, the old character actor. Small town boy in the big city.
I was so impressed with myself for being there, I had to call somebody back home. In those days, when you made a long distance call, the local operator would ask you for the city and party you were calling, would have to call another operator to get a routing number, then would dial that number, and ask the operator on the other end to connect you to the party being called. Quite a cumbersome process.
In weeks past I had made several calls home from Cape May and had memorized that routing code to Cliffside. So when the Noo Yawk operator asked me for my party and city, I, in my best radio announcer’s voice, told her I was calling “person-to-person to Mr. Byron Bailey,” and proceeded to recite the routing code: Seven-oh-four plus six-seven-eight plus eight-nine-oh-five plus plus, or some such gibberish. (There. Now she knows I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck.)
Now, let me set the scene in Cliffside. In a little dwelling on Reservoir Street, in the front room on the left as you entered the front door, sat an old-timey switchboard. It was about the size of an upright piano, with a large number of wires leading in and out. Sitting at that switchboard wearing her headset was Pearl Ledford Callahan. Pearl, her husband M.B. and their children lived there, and, to the public, were the Cliffside Telephone Company, handling the little town’s communications day and night. Not a big operation, for, as I recall, we still had two-digit phone numbers, such as “62” or “34.”
So the operator in New York, using the routing code I so ably provided, rang the switchboard in Cliffside and told Pearl, “I have a person-to-person call from Mr. Reno Bailey in New York for Mr. Byron Bailey.” Pearl thought for just half a second and then replied, “I believe they’ve gone over to his mammy’s.”
I winced the wince of an impostor suddenly exposed. There was a pause. (Oh, God, no, here it comes.) The operator, who only a moment ago had been so impressed with my professional manner, my suave nonchalance, finally said, very slowly, “The Cliffside operator believes… (and here she switched to the exact Rutherford County accent Pearl had used) …they’ve gone over to his mammy’s.”
They say there’s a broken heart for every lamppost on the Great White Way. And that day one of them—the one with the deflated ego—was mine.