The constant barrage of TV commercials for smart phones leaves my head spinning in 3G or 4G time, even though I don’t know what 3G or 4G mean That’s probably why all the new cellular phone technology leaves me nostalgic for the first phone we had when I was a child. It was black and boxy, with a circular dial. I remember lifting the receiver often to make sure the dial tone was still there. Even at an early age, I somehow understood that the dial tone was a link to everyone we knew.
Phone numbers had to be dialed, since all phones were rotary style. Also, we were one of four parties on the same line. There were no area codes, either. If you called outside the area, your local operator contacted a long distance operator, who placed a call to another city. Long-distance calls were expensive, so most people only made them when someone was ill or had died.
My grandmother lived with us when I was a child. She spoke English with a thick Italian accent. I remember Gramma trying to call her sister in Boston. Her side of the conversation with the operator went something like this:
“Allo, operation? I wanna call Carmella ina Boston.”
“What is her number?” I imagine the operator asked.
“She’sa number two ’cause Ima the oldest.” Gramma said.
” Here, Gramma, let me help.”
Two of the other parties, a lady named Irma and a man named Jack, burned the wires most of the day. Irma was usually talking about her illnesses. Jack was an inveterate horse player who was always trying to reach his bookie. I remember one day I was listening to Irma when Jack picked up. Naturally, my mother had to be out of the house. She’d smack me with a yardstick if she caught me eavesdropping. Irma was usually talking to her friend Sadie. Jack would invariably cut in to ask to use the phone, since he could not dial out when the line was being used by one of the other parties.
Jack always said that he needed the phone for an emergency call. Of course, Irma knew that “emergency” meant that Jack needed to contact his bookie to get a bet down. The jousting would usually begin in a civil manner, but sooner or later Irma would call Jack a deadbeat and Jack would scream that she was a phone-hogging nut case. Jack made useless threats which stiffened Irma’s resolve to stay on the line with Sadie.
Once, while I was listening quietly with one hand over the mouthpiece, I could no longer contain myself and began laughing.
“Are you listening in, you little scamp? Hang up or I’ll tell your mother and she’ll beat your fanny,” Irma screamed at me.
“Bratty kids, no respect for their elders,” Jack said.
“Right,” said Irma.
Once busted, it was wise to retreat, since uniting Irma and Jack against a common enemy was not good strategy.
Eventually, we were awarded a single-party line, and we didn’t have to share the phone line. Still, I missed Jack and Irma. They had enriched my life in a way new technology never can. Smart phone technology may present us with the opportunity to be connected to everyone we know. Yet, without that comforting dial tone, I’m not sure it really does.
Jerry Gervase is a columnist for The Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.