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Is Their Number Up?

Those Directory Assistance Folks Keep One Eye on Their Computer and One Looking Over Their Shoulder

January 08, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The calls come in every 21 seconds, and you're falling behind if you don't answer each one. "Hello, this is Rad, what city?" you say, about 1,100 times a day.

You and the 300 other Pacific Bell directory assistance operators around you don't have your own desks. It's a different station every day. Even the name you use on the phone is a pseudonym. So you perch photos of your kids on the keyboard in the mornings, then lift them off again when you go home.

The children smile up at you. They are one reason you can stand the sore fingers, the cracks in your voice, the relentless calls 7 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, and the strange feeling of isolation in a room filled with people.

Even as your hands skate over the keyboard, searching out the number for Satin Scissors in Torrance, or Mission Carpet Cleaning in San Diego, your free ear is attuned to the rumors that you are becoming an anachronism. In this age of Internet white pages, CD-ROM phone directories and voice-recognition technology, you are going out of date.

"So many companies are going with doing this all by computer, we all sit here waiting for the ax to drop," said Cindi Perrine, 46, a 411 directory assistance operator for 28 years who uses the name "Rad" on the job.

"For now, we're live, not Memorex," Perrine said. "But it's like this kind of service is something left over from the past."

Once, when directory assistance was called "information," it featured women with the one-ringy-dingy voices and encyclopedic knowledge. Before the Computer Age and the breakup of AT&T in 1984, operators perched on high stools, pulling thick cords in and out of huge switchboards with one hand while flipping through heavy bound phone directories with the other.

Today the stools are gone, and so are the switchboards. Since 1981, the directory assistance world has been ruled by computer. Competition from outside what was once the phone company cocoon is making live directory assistance operators, once essential, now nearly obsolete.

To compete, the phone company is cutting its work force and requiring fewer operators to handle a heavier volume of calls. Operators feel increasingly robbed of the nourishment of human contact, the ability to chat, if only for a brief moment, with strangers on the phone.

"It's sad, the lack of contact with people," said Judi Lioacono, 51, who is in her 29th year on the job. "It's everywhere; people are really hurting to talk to a real person."

But directory assistance is still one of the realms in which going to work can make you feel part of a wider community.

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On Super Bowl Sunday, hundreds of calls come in asking for the number of Domino's Pizza. During earthquakes, the sick, the lonely and the elderly call seeking someone to talk to, seeking reassurance. Mother's Day is the busiest day for Southern California operators as they dispense the phone numbers of local florists and candy and gift shops.

"If you stop and think how many people I talk to in a day, sometimes it really makes me proud," Perrine said. "I've always thought of myself as a kind of human White Pages that people can go to when they don't want to open the book."

Pacific Bell officials say they have no intention of doing away with live information operators any time soon. But they acknowledge that as they and other former subsidiaries of AT&T struggle to keep down the cost of directory assistance--long a money-losing but much-demanded service--today's operators must work faster and talk to callers less.

"It's hard on operators, but the fact of the matter is that technology over time will replace the human being in that operation," said Phil Cashia, a professor of communications at USC and the man who, when he worked for AT&T, invented the 911 emergency response system. "This whole lifestyle is on its way out."

The life of a telephone operator has been a rigorous one since the first switchboard lit up in 1878. Long-distance operators are the best-trained and best-paid in the operator hierarchy. But for directory assistance operators--the bottom of the phone company heap, according to the union that represents them--the job has always been particularly demanding.

"Flip, sweep and scan," was the job mantra back when information came from huge volumes, which were updated every day. In the late 1970s, whirring microfiche replaced the books.

As late as 1996, operators worked in dozens of small offices scattered around the Southland, taking queries only from their immediate area, getting to know the places, and sometimes the callers, they were responsible for.

"In the old days, we could help you with anything. If you had a problem, we'd try to find you the best place to call to solve it," said Carole Sullivan, who started as an operator in 1959. "Now, it's not that we don't want to help; it's that we have so many more customers, we just don't have the time."

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