Last month, an internet service technician saw something in our kitchen. “Is that a telephone?” he asked. It was. Still is. My history with telephones goes a long way back and offers interesting memo
We bought our kitchen phone when we moved into our house in 1983. It’s a wall model roughly 12 inches square. Most of the unit consists of a telephone book holder. Remember telephone books? We keep menus in there. The reversible front offers a chalk board and a bulletin board. We use the latter to post photos.
My sister Kay has a conventional wall phone in her kitchen. Once, it rang when my great-nephew Max was there. He asked, “How do you answer that?”
As a kid, we had rotary-dial phones. We also helped pioneer extensions. Our two-bedroom apartment hosted phones in each bedroom plus the foyer and, yes, a wall phone in the kitchen.
We had a plan for unlimited local calls with Bell Telephone—the onlyphone company. Many friends didn’t and paid, I believe, ten cents a call. When a call came in, we waited through the first two rings. One ring and a hang-up came from someone I forget. A two-ring hang-up came from my best friend Marty, who I’d call back. I remember our first phone number: HIckory 6-1585. Area code? Didn’t have them. Our number changed to HAvemeyer 4-6348.
Phone numbers matter: “1-800-273-8255” (featuring Khalid and Alessia Kara) is now the top-selling song with a phone number (suicide hotline) in its title. Check YouTube! It surpassed “876-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone). Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar in 1961 for BUtterfield 8.
Long-distance calls required an operator. Direct-dial long-distance put the country closer to our fingertips. Overseas calls? Never made. To whom? But when Carolyn and I traveled through Western Europe in 1970, we called “home” twice—once from a post office phone center in Rome, the other time from Madrid.
Around 1950, my family started spending summers at a bungalow colony in the Catskills, Kappy’s Kottages. Making a call required going to the casino—the combination recreation hall (black-and-white TV, ping pong table, pinball machine) and grocery store. Receiving a call meant a loudspeaker announcement by Irving or Rose Kaplan echoing off the mountains: “Blanche Perlstein, telephone call. Telephone call for Blanche Perlstein.” Kappy’s wasn’t noted for privacy. A few years later, my parents got the first phone installed in a bungalow. But my mother wasn’t always a pioneer. It took her decades to switch from rotary phones to push buttons—and only at Kay’s insistence.
Calling from the road? Pay phones. I remember them costing a dime. I’m sure other folks remember a nickel. Pay phones were everywhere. Today, they’re collectors’ items. One of my favorite New Yorkercartoons shows a man drunk, leaning against the inside of a glass booth and peering out to give pick-directions for being picked up. The caption: “I’m at the corner of Telephone and Telephone.”
Yes, I have an iPhone. I call and text from anywhere to anywhere. And no, I don’t think the old days were better—at least with one exception. Except during an emergency, no one stared at an old-fashioned phone through meals or social gatherings let alone walking on the street. The dinosaur days at least offered that advantage.
To all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.
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