Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Phone Before Cellular

What device as we knew it was more simple than the telephone? We remember a time when you picked up the phone, dialed seven digits, and connected with the person you called at the other end.

It was a time before you had to dial the area code to call a local number.

A time where you may found yourself joining in on someone else's conversation because of a "party line". Today a party line is a 976 number that kids call to meet new friends and talk about whatever kids talk about today. Interesting thing about the new party lines. They seem to be marketed to kids although they're supposed to be for adults only, and the only adults who seem to join in are those who haven't realized they're no longer kids anymore. This can include adults in their 40s or 50s with MySpace.com accounts, and if you live here in South Philly, you know your share of these folks.

A time when it was a big thing for a kid to get an extension phone in his or her room. No, you didn't get your own number, let alone a cell phone to glue to your ear while walking down the street or standing on the corner. Suddenly we know more than we want to know about a person's life because they're not smart enough to be discreet and talk in private. Where they were once your neighbor's darkest secrets, now you only have to be within earshot to know that they've cheated on their taxes or spouses, that they have some sort of sexually transmitted disease, or that their kid is the biggest screwup in the neighborhood and they feel so hopeless about it. Thanks, but if I want to hear your conversations, I'll buy a police scanner and listen in to your cordless or cell phone calls so I can hear both sides. Hearing only your end will bore me. (Note: I'm being sarcastic, it's illegal to listen to someone's conversation through electronic means. So I guess I do have to be satisfied to listen to your one side.)

It was a time when you could make crank calls and no one knew who the heck was on the other end. Especially annoying for someone was when we were on summer vacation and friends stayed over. We'd stay up til 3 or 4 in the morning and someone had their night ruined. Those who yelled the most were those who got repeat calls and no sleep. There was no such thing as caller ID then, and although the person you called said they'd "have this call traced and have your a@@ thrown in jail", you knew it wasn't going to happen. So did they for that matter, which meant that it was even greater mental torture for them. Yep, caller ID ruined it for a new generation of American kids. Now if they're up until 4 AM, it's because they're checking out some "hottie" on the aformentioned MySpace.com whose profile says she's 19 years old, 104 lbs. and 5'-7" with long blonde hair, yet you just know she's a few years older, many pounds heavier, and she hasn't washed her hair in maybe two weeks. The photo in her profile? She found it online.

If we grew up in the cell phone era, my dad would have probably told us to get lost should we have asked for one. I don't even know if he had a phone growing up in the meager home they did in Tampa, FL, ten kids being raised during the depression of parents of modest means. Our generation didn't know those hardships so parents are more free to give their kids what they want. A cell phone? Dad would have probably slapped us in the ear rather than letting us spend half our waking hours with one welded to our ear.

And who can forget growing up in a home where there you had two or more siblings contending for the phone? Your sister's latest boyfriend's on the phone with her talking to her about nothing and you want her off. Why? Because your friends are going to call and talk about nothing. Your mom wondered why she hasn't heard from her best friend in months, and it was because we spent too much time on the line. That person got a busy signal when she called, no such thing as Call Waiting then.

Let's not forget how business was done with the phone company. Today you mail in, phone in, or electronically pay your phone bill. Mom used to have us take a walk with her once a month to Broad & Passyunk to pay the bill at the Bell Telephone Company office. Verizon still owns the property, but I believe it's only for their internal use. Back in the day, you could see all the different phone styles for RENT, no one owned their own phone until the feds broke up AT&T and the "Baby Bells". I'm told there are still a few older folks paying rent on phones that they could have owned 1200 times by now. And what were your rental options? Perhaps a Princess Phone or slimline model? Nothing too fancy, and as the characters who used to reminisce on Saturday Night Live used to say, "...and we liked it!". Today we use the phone lines to do everything from surfing the net to faxing to it's traditional use, talking. Alexander Graham Bell would have his mind boggled if he could only see what his invention wrought.

It's after 1 AM as I finish writing this, and I can only think of those poor souls that I mentioned earlier Those crank calls were another thing Mr. Bell couldn't have anticipated. Or could he have? Maybe, just maybe, one of his reasons for his inventions was to give millions of unstable citizens a way to have fun when the nights were long and... Then again, probably not.

..."At the tone, the Bell Telephone Company brings you the correct time." - You can still call TIME-123 and get the time, I checked tonight. But only a geek would really do it today. I remember reading an article of a mistress who entered her the home of the man who jilted her and dialed the number for time in a foreign country. He was an airline pilot, so he'd be away for a while. His bill was astronomical. Fortunately for him, they let him off the hook.
...When extensions were letters instead of numbers - HOward5-xxxx, DEwey4-xxxx, FUlton9-xxxx, MUnicipal6-xxxx. Since the 1980s we've been using all numbers, but older adults still give their number in the old way.
...When 411 was the information number, and you didn't have to dial the 555-1212 number.
...The days before 911 was used to dial the police. Their number here was 231-3131, and you'd better dial the Operator to get the fire department. Their number was so obscure your house would be gutted before you got the call through.
...The neighbor on Bancroft St. who would call the police regularly and then swear it wasn't her when they arrived. One night after they arrived twice, she said "Next the fire deparment will be coming." Someone heard her say it and surely they did. Of course no one believed her when she said it wasn't her. And no, it was NOT me who called the fire dept. Even I am smart enough not to do that.
...When phones had dials instead of push buttons.
...The previousely mentioned party lines. Those already in conversation would get irritated that you picked up and interrupted, and you'd get angry that you couldn't make a call. Back then, the phone books all mentioned that it was a crime to tell the other parties you had an emergency in hopes of getting them to give up the line. I don't know if anyone ever did this, but you could clear the line quickly.

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