Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Original Help Desk

Thanks, everyone, for your feedback on my cubicle-wall story. You've motivated me to dig up more jewels from the dusty archives and post 'em here.

This is one of my all-time favorites. I'm not sure where it comes from, but it's guaranteed to mist your eyes just a little bit. It's good food for thought as we move through what would otherwise seem like a mundane existence.

I suspect the lesson here is there's nobility in the mundane, and opportunities to make that tiny difference lie all around us.

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The Original Help Desk?
Information Please

When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it. Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person - her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.

My first personal experience with this genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear.

“Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”

“I hurt my finger...” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.

“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.

“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.

“Are you bleeding?”

“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”

“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.

After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before would eat fruits and nuts.

Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled.

I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers at the bottom of a cage?”

She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow, I felt better.

Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.” “Information,” said the now-familiar voice. “How do you spell ‘fix’?” I asked.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was 9 years-old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. “Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home, and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.

As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated how patient, understanding and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well, “Information.” I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell ‘fix’?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.”

I laughed. “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”

“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.”

I told her how often I had thought of her over the years, and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.” Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered “Information.” I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”

Before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?” “Yes.” “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”

I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.

Anonymous

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Never underestimate the impression you may make on others.


-30-

5 comments:

Rachel - Wicked Ink said...

Thanks for sharing this, it did bring a tear to the eye, and a reminder to hold love close.

Kate said...

Very good story.
I Googled it to see where else it might be, and came across it at this link http://www.telephonetribute.com/a_true_story.html, credited to Paul Villard. It also had this text at the end: Originally published June, 1966 Readers Digest; reprinted with permission in the December 1999 issue of the Singing Wires newsletter, TCI club.

Carmi said...

Thanks for finding the history! I always wondered where and when it came from. 1966...I guess some things truly are timeless.

Homeless Comic said...

What a wierd day it is.

Diva said...

I have always loved this story, thank you so much for sharing it.