Contaminated Telephones, by Mercedes Cortázar

The middle-aged Irish woman with red hair and bulging green eyes took a cotton swab from her black satchel and stuck it into the pink cream. Her name, she said, was Aileen. She swirled the stick with flair and applied the substance to the mouthpiece of the telephone, a square, black dial instrument of the early sixties. “This will completely eliminate the microbes,” she said with the officious tone of the evangelist. At that time I could not speak much English, but I had taken comprehension classes in my Caribbean country and understood exactly what she was saying.

Two very kind and polite old sisters, Ruth and Esther, the company’s directors, were supervising Aileen as she showed me how to do the job, and early in the morning they had told me all the details about the pink cream, the secret formula of their brother, Dr. Karl Klein, the company’s president. After many unfruitful attempts, he had discovered a cream that eradicated the tuberculosis bacillus on contact.

Dr. Klein emerged from the back room of his tiny office on the 14th floor of a building on Fifth Avenue. His white medical robe made me feel we had interrupted him while he was conducting an experiment that would lead to his next breakthrough. This gave great weight to his inviting me into his laboratory, where his entire purpose was to show me a slide under the microscope: creatures hidden inside what looked like a blue and purple marble floor, exactly like the photograph of the terrible Koch bacillus on the wall witnessing our conversation of primarily enthusiastic smiles and nods.

“So, now you know that the cream is a great scientific discovery,” said Ruth with sincere pride, after Dr. Klein said goodbye and disappeared again into his laboratory. “Our competitors tried to steal the formula, but we fought them in court and they didn’t get away with it. Keep the jar with the cream well guarded. Last year more than 45,000 people caught tuberculosis by speaking on the telephone. Our secret formula not only cleans the telephones, it sterilizes them as well.”

Even at the age of nineteen, I realized they were staging this entire demonstration because inexpensive young employees like me generally left very quickly.

Aileen’s job this day was to take me around to several clients, show me how to clean the telephones efficiently and relate to the customers. On the sofa of the reception room were the satchels we would need. Aileen packed her satchel methodically, placing the small iron bar to hang up the phone in its fitted nook, followed by a bottle with white polishing liquid and a buffing cloth. She left the jar of pink cream to the last. Showing it to me, to my astonishment she whispered: “You won’t have time to use this. Anyway, that story of the bugs is baloney. Did you believe Dr. Klein was real? I think he is the family drunk and they have him around for show. If you use this pink cream you’ll never be able to finish. Just scoop out some cream from the jar every day, so when you turn in your satchel they won’t suspect.”

I looked at Aileen, mute.

A friend of mine, a Puerto Rican lawyer, had won a very famous case against the telephone company in Puerto Rico by proving that twenty operators with tuberculosis had been infected at work from talking into contaminated mouthpieces. Now, whether this pink cream worked or not, I could not tell because I did not actually see it killing the bacillus under the microscope. Aileen was telling me not even to give it the benefit of the doubt.

At eight o’clock Aileen and I arrived at the first company on our list of clients. This was the office of a millionaire in Rockefeller Center who, Aileen explained, had every nickel invested in the stock market. His was a big wood-paneled office with a glass window that let in the panorama of Manhattan’s grey sky behind the tops of the big buildings. The millionaire was already at work, sitting on a caramel leather sofa watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon while he talked animatedly on the phone in heavily accented French.

Aileen whispered in my ear: “The stock market must be down. He is panicking.” The millionaire, who seemed perfectly calm, hung up the phone, got up and said hello. He had a round red face, fine, scarce blond hair, and wore dirty, wrinkled khakis pants and a beige shirt. “We have yet another new young girl! What do you think of my office?” he asked cheerfully.

After a few seconds of bewilderment, I opened my hands wide and said: “Big. Big.” He smiled, sat down, and turned his attention back to the cartoons. Aileen felt obliged to explain to the back of his head: “She understands, but speaks little English.” The millionaire answered from the sofa without looking at her, “She’ll learn in a jiffy.”

When we cleaned his five telephones (one for each continent? I wondered), we went to five more offices nearby and must have cleaned more than a hundred telephones. It was a quarter to eleven when Aileen announced we were finished. I had done most of the work and she had not allowed me to waste any time using the pink cream. Rushing back to the office would raise the directors’ suspicion, so she led me to a cafeteria and ordered two cups of coffee to kill time, which she said she would pay for.


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