Sunday, October 19, 2008

Can You Hear Me Now?

In a time when we all carry cell phones that are compact, mobile, take still and video pictures, and on some models even give us driving directions, it's remarkable to note that in my lifetime, telephones were once a luxury. In fifties Brooklyn, people with phones had officially "arrived". Early telephones were a far cry from the sleek instruments we use today. They were heavy and clunky looking, with a rotary dial (no push buttons); you could choose from any of the following colors: black.

If you asked someone from fifties Brooklyn what their "area code" was, they would probably quicken their pace to get away from you. Telephone numbers then consisted of just seven digits, a two letter "exchange" designation followed by five numeric digits. (Is that an oxymoron?) For example, my first phone number was HYacinth 8-6927. (Don't ask me where my car keys are, but this I remember.) To reach me you would dial the first two letters of the exchange (in my case HY) followed by the remaining digits. Exchanges had names like MUrray Hill, GRamercy, MElrose and WAverly. Some phone numbers became a part of popular culture like Glen Miller's great swing tune PEnnslyvania 6-5000 and John O'Hara's novel BUtterfield 8. (Also a movie with Liz Taylor.)

To make a long distance call required the assistance of a phone company operator. They had to make the connection for direct dial. "Collect" calls, where the person on the receiving end paid the charges, were also possible. The biggest scam in the history of the telephone involved people who were travelling. They would make a collect call to someone to let them know they had arrived safely. When the operator asked the person being called if they would accept the charges for the call, they always said no. In this way they knew their loved ones had made it to their destinations and didn't have to pay for that information.

It wasn't uncommon for people who had no phones to give out their neighbor's telephone number in case of emergencies. If they got a call, the neighbor would ring their bell and they would come in to take the call. (This was in the days when neighbors actually spoke to each other.) Another option was to go down to the local candy store to make your calls using a pay phone. They were installed in lovely wooden booths with upholstered seats and a light that went on when you closed the door. Some even had little fans to keep you cool. They were probably roomier than some Manhattan "efficiency" apartments. One problem with pay phones was people using "slugs" or round metallic discs instead of nickels to make calls. (Criminals were a lot thriftier in the fifties.)

Rural telephone service in the fifties was even more primitive. Local calls could not always be direct dialed and an operator had to "ring" the party you wished to call. Residential customers often shared a "party line" in which two or more customers are connected directly to the same line. In order to distinguish one customer from another, operators developed different ringing patterns. If the call was for the first subscriber to the line, the ring might be two short rings, if the call was for the second subscriber, the ring would sound another way, such as a short ring followed by a long one, and so on. All subscribers on the line heard all rings, The polite ones only picked up if the ring pattern was theirs. Only common decency kept them from listening in to all calls on the party line. (Our aim is to entertain and to educate.)

In about 50 years, telephones have gone from a wonderful convenience to a giant pain in the ass. In place of the friendly Ma Bell operator who took care of all your service needs, you now have to call six different "service providers" until you find one who condescends to come out, usually to tell you that you need to call someone else. Voicemail means you can never duck an unwanted call. But the biggest pain of all is the pinheads whose empty and endless cell phone conversations you're forced to listen to all freakin' day. Who cares what you're doing for dinner tonight, or that you saw the cutest blouse at Macy's today...just shut the hell up.

There, I feel better now.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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