Walsh’s Wonderings — Telephones were a thing
I came across an old telephone in the basement today. I kept it in a box along with a few Squeeze albums, my first cell phone and a well-worn cassette Walkman. It was a poor man’s time capsule meant to surprise my students one day with how primitive life was before Beyonce.
The phone was the standard, molded-plastic tank dominating tabletops across America in the early ’80s. Some of my fancier friends had phones shaped like Mickey Mouse or replica footballs if they signed up for a subscription to Sports Illustrated. Not my family. The closest our phone got to fashion was the faded orange sticker listing the numbers to call in case of emergency. It was, however, adorned with buttons instead of the rotary dial, easily the biggest time saver since the bagel slicer. Along with our Atari console and a monstrous microwave oven, it was proof we were entering a New Technological Age.
Back then, phones were the only social media available outside Western Union. Ma Bell was a “single lady” herself back then, leaving giant tomes on our doorsteps that housed the numbers and addresses of every phone owner in the area. In the days before telemarketers rose from the primordial slime, an incoming call was an occasion for excitement. We’d race to answer the phone in the hope it was actually for us. If not, we’d hand the phone over to the lucky sibling with, “Hurry up — I’m expecting a call.”
Important as they were, those phones kept us tethered to the wall like dogs on a leash. I envied my friends with long cords that allowed them to pull their phones into their room. My parents, never ones for privacy rights, were happy to let the nine people in our house fight like rabid cats for the right to use it while seated on a hallway floor.
We’d run to the sanctuary of the basement and the excitement of that painfully slow rotary dial as we called our significant others. We’d seethe with frustration at each exasperating busy signal or revel in the satisfaction of truly slamming the phone down when hanging up on someone. There was a tactile pleasure in sliding one’s finger up the braided cord that held the handset to the body of the phone. We knew we had the other person’s complete attention because we didn’t have a thousand apps to distract us from the conversation. That said, Heaven help us if my dad ever found out how long we were on the phone “tying up the line.”
My parents didn’t receive a call for 12 years due to the phone traffic of their offspring.
They were careful to set clear boundaries for using the phone: No calls before 9 a.m., for instance, lest we wake someone up. Long distance charges (because that was a thing back then) were avoided like pickpockets in an alley. My parents didn’t make calls until after 8 p.m., when the rates went down. Calls in the afternoon were an extravagance my dad didn’t appreciate, regardless of who was paying. When we left for school, he’d give us his long-distance plan’s impossibly long string of numbers to punch in before we dialed home. “Call your mother, but weekends are cheaper.”
Phones are barely phones these days; they’re computers and GPS devices and security blankets for the socially awkward (hello). We make calls through our cars and watches. However, there’s still a certain romance around Alexander Graham Bell’s social dinosaur that first allowed us to reach out and touch someone. In another decade or two, today’s cell phones will join them in those dusty, forgotten boxes in the basement. Enjoy them while you can. (‘Cause if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.)