There’s an amazing new smartphone out now called the [Samsung Galaxy Note] “Edge.” Instead of rudely interrupting your conversation with a friend to check your phone for a sports score, you can now rudely look down at your edge phone lying on the table and read the tiny ticker (ribbon of information like at the bottom of a newscast).
I grew up in a tri-generational house with kids, parents and grandparents. My grandfather was a curmudgeon but we loved him just the same. When I was in high school, all my friends had pink princess rotary phones. We still had the first phone installed in the house in the 1940s. It was hardwired into the baseboard in the kitchen. The wire had a fabric cover, no rubber. The cord from the phone to the receiver was a straight three-foot fabric-covered wire. The phone wasn’t made of plastic. It was made of some kind of dense black material that was so heavy I could’ve killed an elk in my grandmother’s kitchen with a single blow.
My grandfather paid for the phone and firmly believed it was there for his convenience, not other people’s. When he was not using the phone, he kept it in a kitchen cabinet with a towel over it so the ringing sound would not annoy him. To use the phone—remember, this was in the ’60s—we had to wait until he fell asleep in his recliner. Then close the kitchen door. Then sit next to the cabinet that held the phone, open the little door, and be ready to grab that phone on the first ring. We all looked out for each other and if anyone saw him heading for the kitchen they’d sound the secret alarm, and the person on the phone would hang up and put the phone away before my grandfather got to the kitchen.
Around 1970, the old wire came out of the wall. AT&T sent a tech worker to hardwire-install a new phone. When he got there, he had never seen wiring that old before, and had to call another tech to help him replace all this antique wiring.
So now we had a kitchen rotary wall phone. With the long, curling wire from the phone to the receiver that you could wrap around the house three times. It had volume control, which Pop kept on mute.
One of the talents every teenage girl had in the 70s was the ability to thread that 25-foot receiver cord through all kinds of obstacles to get to the next room for some privacy. But once in a while there’d be a misfire. The cord would snap and you’d hear something hit the floor. In my case, I knocked my grandfather’s fountain pens onto the floor. My grandmother was fast enough to grab the inkwell in time, which is why I am alive today.
Push-button phones arrived in the ’70s. And a cousin thought he’d surprise Pop with a new, modern push-button phone with big buttons. This was like giving a man still living in the Bronze Age a coffee latté machine. When Pop came through the door, the whole family ran for cover, and my Aunt Carol offered to call the family priest to ask him to come and give my cousin his last rites. My grandfather pulled the phone off the wall with one yank and AT&T had to send a techie out to do the repair. It was the same tech who changed out the antique wiring the year before. My grandfather wanted the rotary phone he had finally gotten used to. The tech kept trying to talk him into a new push-button phone, but he couldn’t keep a straight face and finally said, “Okay, Mr. Flynn. You win. Rotary phone on mute.”
My grandfather would’ve been 112 this coming August 2. He loved Shelter Island and seeded clam beds all around the Island that are still flourishing today. He lived by his own code and would’ve been extremely annoyed if someone was talking to him but kept peeking at the ticker on their Edge phone. In fact, doing that with him could be considered a suicidal gesture.