Have you ever had an idea pop into your head for no apparent reason? I’m talking some totally disjointed event that has nothing to do with anything and just moved itself into your conscious brain. It just happened to me. I just remembered the geekiest thing I ever did. Ever!
My first job working with adults was at Sears Roebuck in Flushing. New York isn’t a particularly “Sears” type of place. The store was small and ill suited for Downtown Flushing¹. Sears has no stores this size anymore. The store was designated 4524, a B3a class store.
We received a yellow pay envelope every week with tax info written on the outside and your salary, in dollar bills and coins, on the inside.
I worked at the credit desk, catalog sales and customer service. One summer I ran shipping. That was fun. A few times I answered the switchboard.
It was an old timey switchboard with Bakelight switches and rubbery cords covered in fabric. In the forward right corner was a dial without a phone. The operator wore a headset with large earpiece and heavy duty microphone. This was pre-miniaturization.
“Good afternoon, Sears. May I help you?” Back then, to me, a switchboard was an iPhone. Savvy?
Long distance was expensive. No problem for me. I had no need for toll calls since I didn’t know anyone outside New York City, or more accurately, Brooklyn and Queens. Still, I had a desire to make a call somewhere.
Sears had a national network of tie-lines, linking various regional headquarters together. My guess was, it was flat-rate so it wasn’t closely monitored for use. I started looking at the internal company phone book.
It turned out you could dial a routing code and, voila, you were in Chicago or Boston or some other center. You’d hear “click,” and then their dialtone. I know. I tried. You could even dial-9 and get an outside line in Chicago or wherever.
My goal was to dial from one regional office to another and then another, ad nauseum. I’d go as far as Sears would take me. That’s how one afternoon with nothing better to do, I called myself.
From Flushing, I called North Jersey, where our credit accounts were held, then routed myself to Chicago then Detroit. I don’t remember the rest except it was a long list. As each additional leg was added, the sound quality became more watery It was all one call, but taking a ridiculous route through mechanical switches and low grade analog voice lines.
It took a few tries. A few times unidentified lines in the center of my call would drop, forcing me to start over. Still, I achieved my goal. By late afternoon I’d made my other line ring from a call that traveled the entire country and then some.
My wife and daughter will undoubtedly not be impressed. Back then, this was quite the geeky achievement. I’m still kinda’ proud.
I have no idea why it came to me tonight.
¹ – The Flushing Main Street subway station is consistently the busiest outside Manhattan. It is a thriving downtown, teaming with mostly Asian immigrants and virtually indistinguishable from Bangkok or Hanoi.