Buzz. Click. The sounds of a switchboard in a tiny office in downtown Menlo Park bring back memories of simpler times, before hula-hoops were replaced by 24 Hour Fitness and “new technology” meant leak-free ballpoint pens.
Eve of Eve’s Answering Servicehas been operating her switchboard since 1985, when she started as a summer high school intern and never left. Today, Eve answers phones for 60 clients, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the help of only one assistant. No vacations, no sick leave. Just Eve and her switchboard.
“What is a switchboard?” You might ask, as I did, if your trivia knowledge does not involve 1950s office technology. Think 20 land-line phones, with 20 phone lines each, but organized into a wall of sockets activated by manually-plugged switches. The 557 A Bell System model by Western Electric –with which Eve spends 50 hours a week –was introduced in 1955.
“I’m probably the last person who uses it, except for maybe some bum-freak in Arkansas,” laughed Eve.
Hair salons, law firms, you name it – if it’s a small business looking for a personal answering service, Eve is the woman for the job.
“It’s better than any computerized system that just funnels in the calls and you have to take them the order they come in and listen to this stupid music, or the phone menu—god,” Eve winced. “We’re real.”
That’s exactly the word to describe Eve—real. She speaks with complete strangers as if she’s known them for years, assuaging their appointment worries with her buoyant personality.
“Hi hon…you got it…mhmm…gotchya.” Eve’s smiling voice doesn’t betray the eye-roll she shoots at me because of yet another indecisive caller setting up an appointment. “Tell me which day you want or I will come over there and t.p. your house,” she jokes.
When a client calls, activating a dull buzz and a flashing light above the appropriate socket, Eve plugs in the switch to make the connection. Each switch is held by a cord on a weight and pulley system.
When AT&T sold Eve the switchboard in the ’90s “when they didn’t want to deal with the upkeep anymore,” she bought it for $900. “Nobody who was trained how to fix these things is still alive,” said Eve, knocking on her wooden desk.
Though the technology is dated, having all the phone lines in one place makes the system simpler, allowing Eve to have up to twelve lines on hold at once (which she does, with little pleasure, on rare occasions). The board itself has 200 outlets, in theory allowing an operator to reign over 200 active phone lines.
For 43-year-old Eve, who grew up in Redwood Cityand has spent her whole life in the region, answering phones is her way of providing a service for the community. “I have no life and I love it,” said Eve. “I love my little cracker box and all my clients, and it’s nice to be needed. They’re all my kids and I take care of them.”
Anxious that she might let down her clients, Eve never misses a day at the answering service. If she’s sick, she works sick. “They know I’m there for them every day and if I’m not, please call the police because I’m probably dead in a ditch somewhere,” Eve laughs, but she’s serious.
But Eve does make time for her assistant, Kathy.
“She stops whatever she’s doing and hugs me goodbye,” said Kathy, whose new chihuahua, Dupey, has become the default mascot of the business.
“Kathy is a refugee from the deepest darkest call centers you’ve ever heard of,” Eve tells me.
After a long day of work, Eve decompresses by reading science fiction or spending the night with her parents watching episodes of Cash Cab. But like many workaholics, her work remains in her subconscious after hours. “I hear this thing in my sleep,” said Eve. “My husband goes, I hear you say, ‘May I help you?’ in your sleep!”