By now, Audrey Yates knows "the look." She will say something harmless to someone - good morning to a bank teller, how are you to the bus driver. Instead of replying, the other person will stop, stare and study, trying to place "that voice."
Recognition usually gathers slowly. When it comes, the face will briefly consider whether it is about to be foolish, about to be wrong. But then the question pops: "Say, don't you do the weather?"
Gordon Barnes, Willard Scott and Sam Allred are all too familiar with all this. It assaults them every time they buy a quart of milk. Audrey Yates does not enjoy the same sort of fame. But she gets her information from the same place as the TV types, and she is ten times more distinctive.
The reason is her classic British accent. While she is only one of about 30 women who make the hourly weather recording for the phone company, Audrey Yates is the one who gets the fan mail.
To catch her act on 936-1212 is to catch the lilt and twist of the Queen's English the way Victoria might have intended it. And unlike the prognosticators of the airwaves, Yates is seldom blamed, either for inaccurate forecasts or for those that gloomily come true.
How could anyone hate a voice that says "chonce of roin tonoit?" Even Scott, in his zanier moments, has never approached Audrey Yates being just plain Audrey Yates.
She plays to an audience of about 125,000 callers a day, a total that nearly doubles whenever something wet is falling, or might. She makes her recordings about five minutes before the hour in an eight-by-eight sound-proof studio at the phone company's downtown Washington headquarters.
Like the rest of the "weather girls," Yates's "normal" job is special services operator. She sits at a huge switchboard and sets up conference, marine and mobile calls. But at about ten minutes before every hour, a buzzer will sound.
That means the latest official hourly readings have just arrived via teletype from the National Weather Service's outpost at National Airport. So Audrey Yates lays down her headset, grabs a pencil and heads down the hall to the recording studio.
There, on a pulsating green printer, Yates will find a piece of yellow paper on which a few rows of letters and numbers appear. Typically, the paper will say:
"11 a.m. Wash Nat Arpt Temp 37 Degs 3C Relative Hum 50 Pct Wind SE 5 MPH Barom 30.37 In. Falling."
With her pencil, Yates turns the "C" into celsius, the "Barom" into barometer. She checks the "feed" to be sure it makes sense and is all there. Then she turns to a recording table behind her, clears her throat, throws a switch and lets fly.
The forecast will already be lying on the table, from the previous hour. It is Yates's job to stitch together her introduction, the hourly conditions and the forecast. She seldom fluffs the continuity.
She had better not. Yates is known as one of the few operators to go directly "on the air" without rehearsing. Actually, that means directly onto tape - which is instantaneously fed to about 20 switching stations around the Washington area.
She could always remake a tape if she coughs or errs, but that might mean the 11 a.m. weather wouldn't get properly recorded until, say, 11:05."I'm almost never late," Yates says. "You'd be surprised how many people complain if you are."
Yates is now in her ninth year as The Proper Voice of Washington Weather, and in her 26th as a C & P operator. Although she has been in the U.S., and the Washington area, for 32 years, her speech seems untouched.
That's a bit remarkable, for after all, this is dangerous territory for anyone who pronounces "Maryland" the way the colonists did and expects to be understood. But no "Murrilyn," no "tempiture" and no "fawcast" for Audrey Yates.
"I'm not a crusader for proper English," she said. "It's just, well, there's just a right way and a wrong way."
The one abiding frustation of her job, Yates said, is that C & P bowed to customer complaints about six months ago and dropped the tag line from the weather spiel.
Throughout the fall, operators did sign off with: "In any kind of weather, it's nice to give the United Way." But outside of fundraising season, it will henceforth be the weather and nothing but.
Yates regrets that, because she had come up with her own "signature" - "have a safe day."
"I defined mine," she said."Have a safe day - I don't see how anybody could object to that." But orders are orders, and now callers get the Yates signoff only when she forgets to forget it.
Modest and shy to the point of silence, Audrey Yates says she is embarrassed when callers suggest, as many do, that she be the weather voice all the time. "I think a variety's nice," she said. She shudders to think that the "voice of time" on 844-2525 belongs to an Atlanta woman whose recorded tones serve every Bell Systern, affiliate in the country.
But Washington knows a voice of distinction when it hears once "No, no marriage proposals," says Audrey Yates, "but you'd be surprised how many people send me letters and cards."
They're all justified. For here is a woman whose job repeats itself endlessly, but who can still say: "Sometimes I feel like breaking into song when I'm making the tape."
Well, Willard Scott has tried that, and worse. But he certainly never had God Save the Queen in mind.