The Meaning Behind “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce and How a Stint in the National Guard Sparked the Idea

Jim Croce left a whole lot of genius behind in his all-too-brief time on this planet. His plainspoken songs dripped with dialogue that felt lived-in and real. But then he’d connect the dots within the songs to reach emotional truths that could stop you short. “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” represents Croce at his very best.

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What is the song about? And what in Croce’s life inspired it? Let’s go back to a time when pay phones were still a thing as we explore this ’70s classic.

Belated Breakthrough

Croce’s singer/songwriter career seemed like a non-starter. He had been knocking around since the early ’60s and had two failed albums (one on his own and one recorded with his wife Ingrid) to show for his recorded output. He worked all manner of odd jobs while playing tiny shows. When his wife had their first child in 1971, it was do-or-die time for him in terms of his music hopes.

Luckily, some breaks finally started going his way. He meet a classically trained musician named Maury Muehleisen and the two displayed immediate chemistry playing together. Croce then attracted the attention of producers Terry Cashman and Tommy West, who helped the artist put together demos of his latest material. Croce shopped these around and endured rejection after rejection before getting a deal at ABC Records, who released his debut album You Don’t Mess Around with Jim in 1972.

The title track, a rollicking story song about murderous pool hustlers, became an unlikely Top 10 hit. For the second single from that record, Croce went with a song that showed a much different side of him. “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” jumped off from one of the artist’s experiences and came to life thanks to his ability to create relatable drama from a slice of life.

Waiting for a Call

In 1966, Croce joined the National Guard in an attempt to preempt the draft. When he reported for training, he found he wasn’t very good at following orders. But his antennae were always up for song material. He would wait in long lines to use the payphone so he could call his wife. While in line, he overheard the stories that would filter their way into “Operator,” as Ingrid Croce told Songfacts:

“Most of them were getting on the phone and they were OK, but some of them were getting these ‘Dear John’ letters, or phone calls. I think that was the most important aspect of the song, because it was just so desperate. You know, ‘I only have a dime’ and ‘You can keep the dime’ because money was very scarce and very precious, and I think if you look at the words to the song there are so many aspects of our generation that are in it.”

The Meaning of “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)”

“Operator” captures the stream-of-consciousness verbiage emanating from a guy who wants to call long-distance to his ex. As it turns out, he never actually speaks to her, but instead spews it all to the telephone operator helping him out. We find out in the first verse that the girl has moved on with the narrator’s best old ex-friend Ray / A guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated.

Note how he essentially moves through different stages of grief as he’s talking to the operator. In the second verse, he inadvertently reveals how much this is hurting him: There’s something in my eyes / You know it happens every time / I think about the love that I thought would save me. In the final verse, he decides to give up trying to get in touch with her, although you can hear the dejection in his voice when he says, You can keep the dime.

After each verse, the narrator tries to kid himself that he’s up for the prospect of talking to her and that he can do so without breaking down. But he can’t quite get over that hump: I only wish my words could just convince myself / That it just wasn’t real / But that’s not the way it feels. “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” beautifully showed off the sensitive side of Jim Croce’s songwriting. It was a side that the world would get to know again and again in his three albums released in 1972 and 1973, when he rose to the top of the singer/songwriter world and then left it way too soon.

Croce was one of six people killed in a plane crash on September 20, 1973, in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He was 30.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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