As the nationwide telephone strike nears the end of its second week, supervisors handling information calls here are finding out that the operator's job isn't just a simple high-wire act.
Among other things, they are learning that such places as Looney Ballooney's and the Pleasant Peasant really do exist and that the most commonly requested numbers include the Redskins ticket office, JKJ Chevrolet, the Better Business Bureau, the Kennedy Center and D.C. Jail.
On strike in the metropolitan area are nearly 12,000 employes of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., including all but one of the 137 directory assistance operators who work in Silver Spring, one of six offices in the area that handle a constant flow of 411 inquiries.
The strikers outside the old brick building at 8620 Georgia Ave. said yesterday that because of the the court-ordered breakup of the Bell system, which owns C&P, they are worried more about job security than pay raises.
"Day One, and I was there," the strikers chanted, clapping hands. "Day 12, ain't goin' nowhere."
Inside the building, the supervisors were working nine-hour shifts (down from 11 last week), a small segment of the 3,000 management employes keeping the phone system going locally.
Also filling in were friends and family of management. While the strikers marching outside accepted honks of encouragement from passers-by, the temporary operators looked forward to their 15-minute breaks and buffet lunches provided by the company.
On the door of the lunch room is a handwritten note that said, "The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association is getting calls for the Motor Vehicle Department. Be sure to search the government file for Motor Vehicle Department." Similar notices, labeled "customer complaint," are posted strategically throughout the fifth floor these days.
The operators sat at video display terminals in 15 clusters of four desks each in a long well-lit room.
"You get exasperated phone calls, obscene phone calls," said Don Brown, whose normal job is product management. "It's always easier to get caught up in your own bailiwick and not get enough appreciation for what someone else is doing. Trying to understand your customers is the big problem."
A woman asked Brown for the number of a former Prince George's county executive, whose name she could not recall. Brown gave her the county government's information number. A few minutes later, he asked a caller to spell the "szechuan" in "Szechuan Gardens." Brown also had trouble spelling the name of Mel Krupin, the Connecticut Avenue restaurateur, but, after two tries, got it right.
"I had one the other day," he said, "a lady asked for the Pleasant Pheasant restaurant , over in Virginia. It wasn't listed. I said it probably flew away. Then, somebody called up yesterday for the Pleasant Peasant. Now I know. I may even try it. It sounds like fun."
To Dave Steindler, a district manager, answering 411 calls was "kind of interesting. I'm new in Washington, and it's an opportunity to learn the metropolitan area." One inquiry, however, threw him: Looney Ballooney's.
"When he said ballooney's, I almost said baloney, but it was there," said Steindler, whose 32 years with the phone company--mostly in West Virginia--included several strikes. "Every time you go through this, you see ways to improve operating services when you go back," he said.
The supervisors said they tired of sitting at their consoles all day. "It's good to get up and stretch and take a walk," said Steindler. "I go home, generally the first thing I do is walk around the neighborhood. I even look forward to mowing the grass, getting a little exercise."
Outside the building, Steindler noted, there were people getting their exercise walking picket lines, sacrificing pay for principle.
Vanessa Washington was one. Like Steindler, she was recently arrived from West Virginia. "I feel badly, mostly for the public," she said. "I like working, serving the public. I hate the long stirke, but I'm union 100 percent. I believe in sticking together, solidarity forever, what can I say?
"I want a future to look forward too," said Washington, 24. "It's rough on me right now, but I'm willing to stay out for as long as it takes."