Information Please operator teaches child life lessons

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 talked 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 the-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?” the voice asked.

“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 fruit and nuts.boy with old wall phone

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 inconsolable.

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 on 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 for “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 nine 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 now 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 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.”

early switchboard operator

Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, Information.

I asked for Sally.

“Are you a friend?” she asked.

“Yes, a very old friend,” I answered.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally has 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,” I replied.

“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.

Never underestimate the impression you may make on others.

Whose life have you touched today?

Story of Stevie, the busboy with Down syndrome

I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy, but I had never had a mentally handicapped employee. The story of Stevie could have turned out as a sad one.

Would a Down syndrome employee succeed?

I wasn’t sure how my customers would react to Stevie. He was short, a little dumpy, with the smooth facial features and thick – tongued speech of Down syndrome. I wasn’t worried about most of my trucker customers, because truckers don’t generally care who buses tables as long as the meatloaf platter is good and the pies are homemade.

The four-wheeler drivers were the ones who concerned me:

  • the mouthy college kids traveling to school
  • the yuppie snobs who secretly polish their silverware with their napkins for fear of catching some dreaded “truckstop germ”
  • the pairs of white-shirted business men on expense accounts who think every truckstop waitress wants to be flirted with

I knew those people would be uncomfortable around Stevie, so I closely watched him for the first few weeks.

truckstop iowa80

Initial success for the story of Stevie!

I shouldn’t have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff wrapped around his stubby little finger, and within a month my truck regulars had adopted him as their official truckstop mascot. After that I really didn’t care what the rest of the customers thought of him. He was like a 21 year old in blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and eager to please, but fierce in his attention to his duties.

Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly in it’s place, not a bread crumb or coffee spill was visible, when Stevie got done with the table. Our only problem was convincing him to wait to clean a table until after the customers were finished.

He would hover in the background, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully bus the dishes and glasses onto cart and meticulously wipe the table up with a practiced flourish of his rag. If he thought a customer was watching , his brow would pucker with added concentration. He took pride in doing his job exactly right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each and every person he met.

Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow who was disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They lived on their Social Security benefits in public housing two miles from the truckstop. Their social worker, who stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they had fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid him was the probably the difference between them being able to live together and Stevie being sent to a group home.

public housing project

Tragedy strikes Stevie

That’s why the restaurant was a gloomy place that morning last August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work. He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new valve or something put in his heart.

His social worker said that people with Down syndrome often had heart problems at a early age, so this wasn’t unexpected, and there was a good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at work in a few months.

A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that morning when word came that he was out of surgery, in recovery and doing fine. Frannie, my head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance the aisle when she heard the good news.

Belle Ringer, one of our regular trucker customers, stared at the sight of the 50 year-old grandmother of four doing a victory shimmy beside his table. Frannie blushed, smoothed her apron and shot Belle Ringer a withering look.

He grinned. “OK, Frannie, what was that all about?” he asked.

“We just got word that Stevie is out of surgery and going to be okay.”

“I was wondering where he was. I had a new joke to tell him. What was the surgery about?”

Frannie quickly told Belle Ringer and the other two drivers sitting at his booth about Stevie’s surgery, then sighed.

diner order

Unexpected help arrives

“Yeah, I’m glad he is going to be okay,” she said,” but I don’t know how he and his mom are going to handle all the bills. From what I hear, they’re barely getting by as it is.

Belle Ringer nodded thoughtfully, and Frannie hurried off to wait on the rest of her tables. Since I hadn’t had time to round up a busboy to replace Stevie , and really didn’t want to replace him, the girls were busing their own tables that day til we decided what to do.

After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She had a couple of paper napkins in her hand a funny look on her face.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I didn’t get that table where Belle Ringer and his friends were sitting cleared off after they left, and Pony Pete and Tony Tipper were sitting there when I got back to clean it off,” she said, “This was folded and tucked under a coffee cup.”

She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 fell onto my desk when I opened it. On the outside, in big, bold letters, was printed “Something For Stevie”

“Pony Pete asked me what that was all about,” she said, “So I told him about Stevie and his mom and everything, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they ended up giving me this.”

She handed me another paper napkin that had “Something For Stevie” scrawled on its outside. Two $50 bills were tucked within it’s folds. Frannie looked at me with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply “truckers.”

napkins on table

Stevie returns from surgery

That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day Stevie is supposed to be back to work. His placement worker said he’s been counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn’t matter at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in the past week, making sure we knew he was coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his job was in jeopardy.

I arranged to have his mother bring him to work, met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his day back.

Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn’t stop grinning as he pushed through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing cart were waiting.

“Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast,” I said. I took him and his mother by their arms. “Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate you coming back, breakfast for you and your mother is on me.”

I led them toward a large corner booth at the rear of the room. I could feel and hear the rest of the staff following behind as we marched through the dining room. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty and join the possession.

We stopped in front of the big table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins.

“First thing you have to do, Stevie, is clean up this mess,” I said. I tried to sound stern.

paper napkins

Surprise for Stevie

Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of the napkins. It had “Something For Stevie” printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table. Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or scrawled on it.

I turned to his mother. “There’s more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. Happy Thanksgiving.”

Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody hollering and shouting, and there were a few tears, as well, but you know what’s funny?

While everybody else was busy shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big, big smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table…

Best worker I ever hired.

Encountering Unconditional Love at McDonald’s

I am a mother of three children and have recently completed my college degree.

The last class I had to take was Sociology. The teacher was absolutely inspiring with the qualities of unconditional generosity that I wish every human being would be graced with. Her last project of the term was called “Smile.”

The class was asked to go out and smile at three people and document their reactions. I am a very friendly person and always smile at everyone and say hello anyway, so, I thought, his would be a piece of cake, literally.

How My Adventure Began

Soon after we were assigned the project, my husband, youngest son, and I went out to McDonald’s one crisp March morning. It was just our way of sharing special play time with our son.

fast food burger

We were standing in line, waiting to be served, when all of a sudden everyone around us began to back away, and then even my husband did.

I did not move an inch, because an overwhelming feeling of panic welled up inside of me as I turned to see why they had moved. As I turned around I smelled a horrible “dirty body” scent, and standing there behind me were two penniless homeless men.

As I looked down at the short gentleman who was closer to me, I noticed he was “smiling.” His beautiful sky blue eyes were sparkling as he searched for unconditional love.

He said, “Good day” as he counted the few coins he had been clutching. The second man fumbled with his hands as he stood behind his friend. I realized the second man was mentally deficient and the blue eyed gentleman was his salvation.

two homeless men

The young lady at the counter asked him what they wanted. He said, “Coffee is all miss” because that was all they could afford. (If they wanted to sit in the restaurant and warm up, they had to buy something. He just wanted to be warm).

My Unexpected Response

Then I really felt it – the compulsion was so great I almost reached out and embraced the little man with the blue eyes. That is when I noticed all eyes in the restaurant were set on me, judging my every action. I smiled and asked the young lady behind the counter to give me two more breakfast meals on a separate tray.

I then walked around the corner to the table that the men had chosen as a resting spot. I put the tray on the table and laid my hand on the blue eyed gentleman’s cold hand. He looked up at me, with tears in his eyes, and said, “Thank you.”

I leaned over, began to pat his hand and said, “I did not do this for you. God is here working through me to give you hope.” I started to cry as I walked away to join my husband and son. When I sat down my husband smiled at me and said, “That is why God gave you to me, Honey. To give me hope.”

We held hands for a moment and at that time we knew that only because of the Grace that we had been given were we able to give unconditional love. We are not church goers, but we are believers. That day showed me the pure Light of God’s sweet love.

I Hand In My Project

I returned to college, on the last evening of class, with this story in hand. I turned in “my project” and the instructor read it. Then she looked up at me and said, “Can I share this?”

I slowly nodded as she got the attention of the class. She began to read and that is when I knew that we, as human beings and being part of God, share this need to heal people and be healed.

In my own way I had touched the people at McDonald’s, my husband, son, instructor, and every soul that shared the classroom on the last night I spent as a college student.

unconditional acceptance

I graduated with one of the biggest lessons I would ever learn: unconditional love and acceptance. Much love and compassion is sent to each and every person who may read this and learn how to:

Love people and use things;
not love things and use people