About 25 years ago, I wrote an article in Dan’s Papers lamenting how telephones dominated our lives. I remember it well. Telephones, I said, were the only modern convenience in our homes that demanded attention when they rang and the moment they rang. You would drop everything and run over to wherever the telephone was and, breathlessly, pick it up and say, “Hello?”
On the other end, whoever it was would have your complete attention.
“Why, Jane, it’s so good of you to call,” you might say.
A person sitting on a sofa in the living room, who might have been in the middle of an important story they wanted you to hear, would be on hold. They could only return to where they were in the story when the call was over.
No other invention had such a tyranny over everything. Cars started when you turned the key and otherwise lay idle. TVs got turned on and off. Light switches and washing machines were at your beck and call. But the phone could wake you from a deep sleep at 3 a.m. It could get you scrambling out of the bathtub to answer it soaking wet. It could get you reflexively answering a pay phone as you were walking by if there were no one in it.
And then there were the occasions when you completely altered your life when it DIDN’T ring.
Perhaps the best known was waiting at home all afternoon for someone special to call, who never did.
There was also a serious problem with unwanted callers. You wouldn’t even know who was interrupting your day until you picked up the phone. Often it was somebody trying to sell you something. Or sometimes it was even a crank caller.
Finally, there was the fact that you could not turn the phone off. A line went directly from the wall to the phone. There was no way to remove it yourself. Only a technician could do that. Your only option was to rip the cord out of the wall. Or fling it across the room, which was never a good idea because phones were made of steel, weighed about six pounds and could cause quite a bit of damage. I’m sure people were killed by flying phones.
How rude! I wrote. Why do we put up with it?
This article, which I wrote in Dan’s Papers back then here on eastern Long Island, resulted just a year later in the invention of the automated answering machine. I take full credit for this. I wrote the article. The inventors began working on the problem. A year later there it was.
Answering machines were, though, just a partial solution. It wouldn’t work, of course, if you forgot to turn it on. It also would work, but might still result in a dive for the phone even if you were with someone, if you were expecting an important call. Or if you weren’t quite sure and at first decided to let it go to the answering machine and then changed your mind.
There were hospitals full of people who had banged themselves up diving for the phone, gashing their foreheads, breaking their collarbones, spraining their ankles, in desperate attempts to get to the phone before it got through its fourth ring and defaulted to the machine, or worse, got to that fourth ring and the caller had hung up.
It was only later, when the cell phone came into general use, that this problem got solved completely. Many people today don’t have house phones at all anymore. I recall when the day came for me to consider chucking my house phone. I had a long conversation at that time with my house. My house pleaded for his phone. He reminded me how much good it had done me in years past. He asked me to consider all his good service. He pointed out how, if an alarm went off at the house and a security company called, his not answering it would bring help on the way. In the end, I decided to keep the house phone but remove the answering machine. With the ringer off, he could operate as a fax machine. We live with that today.
When I was growing up back then, there was an up side to having a phone, but it was a negative upside. Because the phone was in the house, you’d go out of the house to hang out or to play. You’d go over to somebody else’s house. Or you’d go hang out on the street corner. People related rather well one to another back then when the phone was not an issue. We’d go to coffee houses to listen to musicians. We’d go to libraries to study books. We’d sit out on lawns or the beach undisturbed except for portable radios. Nobody could bother us with a phone call if we did any of those things.
That world I occupied growing up was even further different from the world of telephones that were in my father’s era. Out in Montauk, where my dad owned a store, in his era many people were without phones altogether and enjoyed the life of no tyranny of telephones.
Those that had phones had just four digits. In an earlier time, our house phone in Montauk was 2994. Someone would dial that, it would ring at our house. Or if we were just starting out with the telephone and didn’t want a full commitment, we could get a “party line.” They’d bring us a phone, but there would be several neighbors who had this same number. There would be an office somewhere that had a switchboard operator who would answer an incoming call and, if it was for one of us, would have all four phones ring at the same time. It was by chance if the right person was home. Another person might take a message. Or not. As for outgoing calls, you’d pick up your party line phone and if there was someone on it you’d just hang up, or you could listen in if you wanted to. You’d pick it up again later, and if you got a dial tone you could dial the four digits, or, if you wanted to call further away, such as to East Hampton, you’d dial “O” for operator and the switchboard lady would place the call for you. It was pretty expensive calling long distance.
When my mom told me about that, I thought it was pretty funny. What a way to have a telephone. It didn’t even occur to me at that time how rude the system was I was living in and how she enjoyed the freedom from phones just as we do today with cell phones.
In many ways, if you think this through, you see how much private time and separate time we all had back then, even if it was sometimes interrupted. You will also see how we rarely knew where anybody was if they weren’t at work or at home.
There was a lot of crime going on and a lot of danger in the world. The operative phrase was, “Do you know where your children are?” and of course we didn’t. But we could hope.
This was a real downside back then. You could get separated from your friends and family in a crowd back then. You’d have no way of telling them where you were. And they couldn’t call you. Back then there was always a meeting point where everybody agreed they’d meet if they got separated. Not today.
Today, an operative phrase is “Call me when you get near East Hampton, I’ll guide you in.”
Why give directions when you can do that? Or just have them punch in your address into the phone and have the GPS guide them in?
And we don’t even need encyclopedias or libraries anymore. If you’re sitting at dinner in a restaurant and the talk turns to Beethoven and what year he was born, there’s never anyone who says, “I’ll look it up when we get home.” Everybody simply whips out their cell phones and we race to see who gets it first.
By the way, there’s something fascinating that happened when the telephone company said they were adding a three-digit prefix to the four digits we had to dial in my parents’ day. Did you ever wonder why there are the alphabet letters on the number buttons of your phone?
It happened like this. Before the prefix, if you were in Montauk you dialed the four digits. If you wanted to call East Hampton, you called the switchboard and they would put it through.
After the prefix, you could dial East Hampton yourself. If the four-digit number of your friend in East Hampton was 6266, you’d simply dial EH 4 as the three-digit prefix. The numbers on your phone that now said E and H and 4, then 6266. So that’s how that happened. That’s 324. Get it?
725 was Sag Harbor 5. 267 was Amagansett 7. And, of course, if they wanted to call you, Montauk was now Montauk 8.
Uh, excuse me, my cell phone is vibrating, I have to take this call.