And so it came to pass, with the holidays approaching, and with nothing better to do to get myself into trouble, that I decided to telephone some extremely close personal friends of mine yesterday morning.
Starting with the president of the United States.
"Who?" said the long distance operator in Washington.
Now, I know what you're thinking.
You're thinking: Mike, Mike, we live in modern times. Why telephone the president when you can reach him on the Internet?
But I'm not that kind of a guy. I'm the kind of guy who goes back to the old days, the Golden Age of Telephone Calling, when you were maybe 8 years old and you and several of your pals would call, for example, Read's Drug Store to inquire about pipe tobacco, to wit: "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"
"Yes, we do," some unsuspecting adult cashier would answer.
"Well, let him out, he's smothering."
Remember the raucous laughter that accompanied such subtle wit? Remember how you'd quickly hang up the phone, so that the ticked-off adult cashier couldn't demand to speak to your mother right now? Remember how immature the whole thing was, and isn't it great that you've become a responsible adult now?
Well, sure, but ...
"Who?" says the information operator in Washington yesterday morning, when I place my first call.
"Bill Clinton," I say. "He's the president."
"What part of the White House would you like?" asks the operator at the White House switchboard a moment later.
"The part where I speak to the president himself," I say.
"The president is not available on the phone," she says.
Well, I didn't want to do this. I wanted to call as if I'm just another citizen, and not some big shot, famous but humble, major league newspaper guy. But it's clear, under the circumstances, that I've got to throw a little weight around here.
"The name's Olesker," I say, the way Sean Connery used to say, "The name's Bond." "Michael Olesker."
"Hold on," the operator says.
You see, folks, it's all about professional contacts, and the magic of a legendary newspaper byline out of Baltimore. One minute they tell you a president's not available, and the next minute they hear a name that makes generals and Cabinet members tremble down the vast corridors of power, not wishing to hang up on this Olesker who seems to be on such good terms with the president that he called him person to person, men who are even now no doubt bringing him to the phone and ..."
"Hello?" a voice with a familiar Southern accent suddenly declares.
"Sir, this is the operator again," the voice, now clearly female as well as Southern, declares. "The president isn't available on the phone, but I can give you our Comment Line, or ..."
Or I could telephone Parris Glendening, governor of Maryland, man of the people, never too busy to speak to the lowliest constituent who might have a campaign contribution to give.
"Governor's office, Yvette speaking."
You see the difference? Right away, you get a name on the phone, you realize you're dealing with a human being and not some automaton, and, what's more, a human being who represents somebody who wants to hear from his people.
"Parris Glendening, please."
"Sir, he's not available."
"He's not?" I ask, trying to sound incredulous.
"Sir, he's very busy."
"But I'm a citizen."
I hear a sigh on the telephone. It's an exhausted sigh, an Yvettian sigh, if you will, a sigh that says, Mr. Citizen, the governor would love nothing better than to sit with you, perhaps drinking a beer or two, talkin' about them O's, debating the intricacies of tax reform legislation the way any couple of regular fellers would. But ...
"He can't talk to every citizen in the state of Maryland," says Yvette, somewhat breaking my reverie.
So I decide to call Kurt L. Schmoke, mayor of all Baltimore, a man who loves talking to every citizen in his city. See, the president might be a little tied up, and the governor might be busy. But, as you get down to the local level, to the folks who actually live in your community -- these folks are never too busy to say howdy to a neighbor.
"Mayor Schmoke, please."
"His honor's not available," says a woman in his office.
"Will he be available later?"
"I'm not sure what his schedule is today."
"Could I talk to somebody who might know?"
Another voice, identified as a "special assistant" to the mayor: "Mayor Schmoke," this voice says, "is not available."
"Might he be available later?"
"I'm not sure what his schedule is," I hear again. "But, if you'd like to leave a message ..."
Well, sure. Leave a message for the mayor, and for the governor, and the president, too.
Tell 'em I called. Tell 'em it was nothing important.
Tell 'em I just wanted to say happy holidays.
Pub Date: 12/17/96