Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Man Has a Name


Years ago, before answering machines, or call messaging my parents ran a food distribution business. Because it was a small operation, they didn't have the money to employ someone to do the telephone work so my mother took the position, along with the bookkeeping. My mother was an incredible bookkeeper, and she knew it. I would guess her confidence probably did lead to some heated confrontations when someone had the idea her accounting might have been off, with one particular incident resulting in her calling someone a, "Toothless Wonder" before slamming down the receiver. She was right though, her accounting was accurate, and the individual in question was a "Toothless Wonder." I believe they lost that account. As the business-speak people say, she wasn't a people person. Placing mother in charge of calling accounts to take their purchase orders for the week was a serious business gamble, but the way my dad saw it, there were a million restaurants in Illinois and Wisconsin-she couldn't alienate everyone. Most of the customers would order the same thing regularly, and after a while my dad got to know what they needed, avoiding calling for an order, but there were always a few that had small cooler space and didn't want it taken up with food they couldn't use. Once a week to take an order-how much damage could she possibly do?

My dad was a people person. He may have been a mean son of a bitch at home, but people that didn't live with him really loved him. As a businessperson, he really did place the customer first so if they ran out of something on a Sunday afternoon, he'd hop in the truck and bring them what they needed. I remember him regularly bringing a pail of pickles to a frantic hot dog stand an hour and half away on a weekend, sometimes borrowing it from another customer with a promise he'd be back first thing Monday morning to replace it. You didn't get that sort of treatment from the large, corporate food suppliers, and people knew it, appreciated it, and were loyal to him. I'm sure he calculated that into whatever mental business plan he had when he asked my mother to start taking telephone orders.

I remember the green telephone book with the padded green vinyl cover that had, "Telephone Numbers" embossed on it in a loopy golden script. In the front cover, she'd written the days of the week, and who needed to be called when. Some were weekly, some monthly. To her credit, my mother kept all of that straight and running, so that generally the person she needed to speak with was expecting her call and if not available, had left the order with someone to relay it. It sounds so complicated today in an age of electronics, and computers but in the late 60's and early 70's even the simplest tasks required a bit of planning and several steps. This would often get complicated if the person doing the ordering moved on to another job-something that happens regularly in the restaurant business. A new person would have to be trained to deal with my mother as it was best not to just toss someone to her clutches, as it were. She wasn't a mean person, but she did have very strong opinions about the way things ought to be done which more often than not was, her way. Follow the rules, and everything was great. I get that, I really do. If you can't be orderly in your life when things are going well, how will you cope when the shit hits the fan?  The most important thing I learned from my mother was that you can't be an effective control freak if you leave people to do as they please. You need to guide people, sometimes subtly, other times less so, in the direction you want them to go otherwise you may have to compromise with what someone else wants. She wasn't having any of that.

My dad needed a new customer put on the call list. My mother got out her green, padded vinyl telephone book with the embossed gold loopy script, and asked for the cook's name as she'd done so many times prior.
 "Just ask for Ho Chi Minh", he told her. Flabbergasted, and quite rightly, she refused.
"I am not calling a kitchen,  and asking for Ho Chi Minh. The man has a name, what is it?"
"I don't know, that's what everyone calls him" he whined.

She wasn't going to do it. Not long before she'd called another restaurant asking for a Mr. Ali Baba, because that was what my dad swore his name was. His name was, Ali but the "Baba" part was added as a form of good natured ribbing around the kitchen. She'd soon become aware that, "El Greco" was a Greek man named, "George", and that she should under no circumstances trust my father when it came to supplying her with a customer's given name. There are a lot of Poles in Chicago, but they aren't all named, Roman. Not every German is named, Hans.  She knew the cook wasn't named, Ho Chi Minh.

Finally, my dad tells her, "His name is Mr. Chinn, but nobody is going to know who you're asking for because everyone calls him Ho Chi Minh." Satisfied, mother wrote it into her special telephone book and got ready to call him on Monday for an order.

My mother spent years developing her speaking voice. She may have been the daughter of a milkman, but with years of careful attention she managed to sound at least upper-middle class. This would disappear five seconds after you put her in the same room with my grandmother, but for everyone else, and particularly on the telephone her manner of speech was, for lack of a better term, posh. She might have been calling you a toothless wonder, but it was done so in those soft tones that the well-bred adopt and use so carefully that people would almost want to thank her following a dressing down. I recall an unfortunate police officer that once pulled her over to try and point out she had been speeding being so caught off guard, he let her go without so much as a warning. I learned to speak late, and with great difficulty so I never acquired my mother's verbal gifts, but I wouldn't possess the confidence even if I had the accent. She could be positively terrifying without ever raising the volume of her voice.

Monday morning rolls around, my mother takes out the puffy green vinyl telephone book with the gilt embossed script, turns to the front cover and dials Mr. Chinn first on the day's list. She asked for "Mr. Chinn" and as my dad had warned her, was met with a person asking, "Who?!" Finally, she explains that she needs the cook, and the person on the other end of the line finally gets it and says something like, "Oh, Ho Chi Minh, Let me go get him for you."

My mother waited, and waited, and finally the man returned to the line telling her he wasn't in, and would she care to leave a message?
"That's quite all right, I can call back" she informed him, and went about the rest of her daily calls. For several days, she'd call back, ask for, "Mr. Chinn" only to be told he wasn't in. Becoming irritated with the additional work of calling after someone who seemingly never worked but had the responsibility of ordering supplies, she lost patience and left a message that he would have to call her if he wanted any bloody pickles!" It didn't take long for the telephone to ring with an apologetic Mr. Chinn on the other end of the line.

Between the formality of her voice and the use of his proper surname, poor Mr. Chinn was convinced that anyone calling his place of employment looking for him was from the government, and given his immigration status the news probably wasn't going to be good-so he avoided her. When he asked why she called him, "Mr. Chinn" she replied, "because you have a name, and it isn't Ho Chi Minh."

By the mid-1970's my dad made the wise decision to purchase a home answering machine. It was a gigantic, hulking black piece of office equipment with keys and levers and two cassette tapes (incoming and outgoing messages). It was so huge it wouldn't fit on my father's desk and still leave room for the telephone, adding machine, and perpetually overflowing ashtray, so instead it went in the kitchen-atop the free-standing dishwasher that could be wheeled around, but not so far that it would rip the telephone line out of the recorder. I remember it was Halloween, and I was supposed to go to a party but was instead at home with my sister waiting for the stoner sent to install the thing to finish up and leave. I don't know how complicated wiring an answering machine to your phone line could have been, even back then but I suspect it might have gone smoother if  Phineas of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers hadn't been sent to install it.

Eventually my mother worked it out so that people would call to leave orders, and she's have them tallied and scheduled for my dad. A few people still needed a call, among them Mr. Chinn, though I suspect it was not exactly necessary. I doubt their conversation ever extended much beyond, "How are you?" and "May I take your order?" but my mother always figured he enjoyed having someone (that didn't work for the government) call and ask for him by his proper surname. And she did, for many, many years until he retired because the man had a name, and it wasn't Ho Chi Minh.


Asparagus Pea said...

Hooray for your Mum and her standards. We have a big nickname culture where I work and I hate it. I don't hold with calling people things that they wouldn't be happy to introduce themselves as. I'd also hate to think I was being referred to in meetings by some stupid name!

Curtise said...

I love the stories you tell about your family. Ever thought about writing a book? The tales are funny, but thoughtful and sad too... I like that combination.
Your mum sounds as though she was such an interesting woman, and I admire her refusal to play along with all those reductive, queasily racist nicknames. I am sure that Mr Chinn, when he got over the shock, appreciated her politeness and respect. xxxx

Sue said...

I love your stories!! You have a great ability to tell a story, and a true one at that. I remember those double cassette answering machines.

Unknown said...

Your mom sounded like a really powerful woman which is nice to hear as back then women were expected to be a lady and never talk back. I am happy to hear you came from a great strong background. Loved reading your story! It is funny how we take for granted the things we have today (like an answering machine) but you are right there are some people out there still like Mr. Chinn that like to hear a real voice every now and then!


Goody said...

@Asparagus Pea
It is thankfully fading out where I live but amongst the older people you sometimes hear really awful, awful stuff that I doubt they would recognize as racist/ethnocentric, etc.

I don't think my family would make good reading, but you could watch the Jerry Springer Show, and that would be close. I think my mother stood out because she was so different from the rest of them (something she would have discovered had she dated my dad more than a fortnight before marrying him! People did stupid things in the 50's too).

For a second there I was afraid you were going to say you still had a recording machine in use!

Do you know that I don't even get a human being on my telemarketing phone calls, but they have a recording dialing my home at dinner? It sounds like a digitally generated voice, "Don't hang up! This is not a sales call!" What I'd give to hear a person call me from a phone bank trying to sell me aluminum siding, or car insurance.

Connie said...

Well I am with Curtise on this one. I think you tell a fabulous story and your family seems very interesting. You should write a book. I'm not kidding! I just loved this. Our mothers sound very similar. Even though my mother was born and raised and has always lived in Montana she somehow believes that she is some sort of aristocrat.