Monday, April 25, 2011

Phone memories

HALLIE: I'm always startled these days when the phone rings. I think: Anyone who needs to contact me would send an email or text message.

Remember when every bit of really good news came by phone? Now, seems like only really bad news that comes that way ("Are you sitting down...?"

Now, if my land line rings (why do we still have two plus my cell??), nine times out of ten it's a telemarketer despite our having registered DO NOT CALL. Or that bizarre call that begins, "This is your credit card company. There is no problem with your account, but it is urgent that you contact us..." Or, if you move in those circles and it's three in the morning, maybe it's Charlie Sheen.

I wonder what would my father, who had me and all my sisters on speed dial, have made of the seismic shift away from using the telephone.

Do you remember when...
  • You waited for a boy to call and kept picking up the phone, just to be sure it was working?
  • You came home and counted the message blinking lights to see how may messages were waiting?
  • It took so many calls and call-backs to arrange a get-together of more than two people?
So do you still have a land line? And how has your relationship with your phone changed?

I think the next generation doesn't even consider a land line, right?

JULIA: My kids don't. I recently realized they didn't know how to answer a phone that wasn't theirs! We had to have a lesson: "Hello, this is -----'s phone, may I ask who's calling?"

ROBERTA: When I had my private psychology practice, I had to get a second line put in at home for emergency calls, right next to my bed. I dreaded that phone ringing! and then another line at the office with an answering machine. Now professional types just carry their cell phones with them everywhere. The good news (and the bad too) is that they're immediately reachable.

Back in the days of one phone per household, there were intense negotiations of how long anyone could be on the phone in my family--and when. I remember being intensely envious of my friends whose parents got them a "children's line." The line was listed that way in the phone book--you don't see that much now!

And one more thing--when you call someone's cell phone, it's almost certain you'll reach them. So no unexpected chats with the spouse or the kids. I wonder how many mothers and mothers-in-law never ever talk with their kids' significant others these days?

RHYS: We have two land lines, one for that other obsolete piece of equipment, the FAX. About twice a year we receive a fax and yet it sits on my credenza, gathering dust. Remember when the fax was new and vital to business?

I always use my land line unless I'm out and about, because the quality is better and I don't lose calls in the middle. When I phone my daughters inevitably I'll lose them a couple of times because they forgot to charge their phone, or in the case of my daughter who owns a swim center, she dropped her Blackberry in the pool.

But I can remember that bitter sweet waiting by the phone for a certain boy to call. Please, please call. Please, please, please... and then my father wanting to make a call just at the wrong moment. Agony.

I've never noticed that only bad news comes by phone. In fact it's always been the other way around. When I used to submit manuscripts before I had an agent, the editor always telephoned within a couple of weeks to accept. I've had all my notifications of award nominations via the phone. What a sweet thing to hear, "This is the Edgar/Agatha/Anthony committee and I'm happy to tell you...."

What I have noticed is that people have to stay in touch every second these days. Plane lands. Cell phones are whipped out. I've just landed. I suppose it's good. It certainly slowed down those old private eyes when they had to find a phone booth.

DEB: Oh, my gosh, I remember when telephone exchanges had NAMES! (Hey, at least I don't go back as far as the days of operators . . .)

HALLIE: Me, too! And of course I remember the number: Crestview 57146.

Because my parents worked from home, when I was in my teens they got me a "children's line" so my calls wouldn't interrupt their business calls. Oh, what bliss! Hours of uninterrupted gossip--in my room!!! And they didn't know when I was talking to boys. . . good thing, too, as I suspect those conversations wouldn't have passed muster.

But times have changed. Growing up, answering the family phone, you learned to chat politely to your parents' friends, your neighbors, your extended family. Now, although we still have a land line in our house, no one I actually WANT to talk to calls on it, and I'd be just as happy to do away with it altogether. My friends call my phone, my husband's call his.

Nor do I answer land or mobile if the call is unidentified. It's come to feel just as intrusive as a stranger ringing your doorbell.

And yet we chat on Facebook and blogs with people we may never meet, and feel comfortable with it. Weird psychology, isn't it? I'm not sure if the person-connected-to-phone is a good thing, but I don't think there's any going back.

JAN: An odd development, at least in my life is that now there are certain people I only call Cell-to-cell, partly because I recorded their phone number there, and partly because as Roberta pointed out, it's direct access. And there are people I call more now that I have their cell number than I would on a landline - like my nieces and certain friends.

Growing up, I had my own landline telephone, which I wheedled out of my indulgent father. It was a big mistake because I gave that number to the school department instead of the real home number and took it off the hook anytime I wanted to cut school. In today's world, the school department would call a parent's cell number. So I think that's progress.

JULIA: You were lucky! We had call waiting so my parents could receive calls despite two teenaged girls in the house. If anyone beeped through, my sister or I had to say goodbye! How about you, Hank? What did you have as a teen?

HANK: UPtown 3-2768. And my pink princess phone. I LOVED it. (Even though it was cooler to have an AXminster exchange.) PRAYED for boys to call. Checked, constantly, that maybe the phone was broken, or something, when they didn't.

Now when our landline rings--you need a landline, BTW, because cell phones DO NOT connect directly to 911--I leap into the air, startled. Then I argue with my husband about who has to answer it. Bottom line, I refuse to answer it.

Remember A Thousand Clowns, when Jason Robards answers the phone: "Is it someone with good news or money? NO?" and then hangs up? That's me. I HATE THE PHONE.

JULIA: I'm with you. I've come to dislike phoning. I am the queen of text messages - I can get them no matter what the background noise, and if it's important information, I don't have to remember it in my increasingly-porous head: it's right there! Written down!

I hope we don't have any emergencies, because we got rid of our landline a few years back. Out in the country, our local carrier covered four towns, and anything outside that area - including Portland, where our kids went to school and Gorham, where my husband works - was long distance. Plus, whenever we lost power, which happens several times each winter, for up to 4 days at time, the electrically-powered phone was dead. We started getting the kids their own cell phones: Victoria before her sophomore year, Spencer at the start of high school - Virginia's on track to have one by eighth grade! Once you have FOUR cell phones in a house, the landline starts to seem a little like overkill.

ROSEMARY: Most people who call me know - I don't answer the phone. I'm just not one of those "Hi Alice...Hi Ursula" gals from Bye Bye Birdie. Never have been. My business card doesn't have a phone number on it and if anyone actually pries my cell phone number out of me there's only a slight chance I'll pick up if it rings(the bag's so big, who can find the phone?)I just deleted 7 messages from from husband. He's the only one I pick up for and even he doesn't always get through. OTOH I love to be able to read email messages on my phone.

I did just cancel my fax line because I got tired of all those offers to Go To Orlando for $300!! which were the only faxes I got. This week, of course, I had to send a fax and still haven't done it...

Phone Judy Holliday in Bells are Ringing - about the answering service gal who butts into the lives of and eventually falls in love with one of her clients. (BTW Paula Holliday's last name is an homage to Judy Holliday.) And my personal memory...being in a hut in Tanzania in the middle of the night and having Mitch Kaplan call about an event in Coral Gables. Surreal.

HALLIE: Wrapping it up with more phone memories, here are my favorites:
Sexiest: Mary and George Bailey sharing the (old fashioned) telephone receiver in It's a Wonderful Life.
Funniest: Bob Newhart's one-sided calls (loved the one where Sir Walter Raleigh is calling from the colonies; Newhart greets him, "Hey, Wal-baby!" and tells him "That boatload of turkeys you sent us last November? (pause) They're still here, Wal. They're wallking all over. See that's not a holiday here..."
Scariest: Tippie Hedren trapped in the phone booth in Hitchcock's The Birds.

And do you remember these lyrics from "The Telephone Hour" in Bye Bye Birdie, the teens are all on their phones:
Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?
Did they really get pinned?

Did she kiss him and cry?
Did he pin the pin on?

Or was he too shy?

Well, I heard they got pinned
Yeah! Yeah!
I was hopin' they would!
Now they're livin' at last,
Goin' steady for good!
Share your phone memories with us! We'll hang on...


  1. I think part of writing is hating it when the phone rings. Interruptions break "the flow" or "the zone."

    We still have a two landlines, and we each have cells. Plus, we still have some contacts that require faxes, so we have a fax we hook up when we need it.

    I loved those Bob Newhart routines, too. Here's sort of an homage, an animated spoof of "Star Wars" by Robot Chicken with Emperor Palpatine.

    Before checking out the clip, some readers might want to know that the video can be a bit "rude," but there is strategic bleeping. :) Enjoy!

  2. My hometown exchange was DIamond. Loved it.

    We had two lines, my father's business phone (which had extensions on every floor) and a line we called "the green phone" because it was avocado green, I guess. That was the one we kids used, though it was really the family phone. By design, it sat in a little nook off the kitchen where everything you said could be overheard.

    As for movie memories involving phones, how about Dial M For Murder, Hitchcock's classic starring Grace Kelly. As a child I was mesmerized by that film.

    Brenda Buchanan

  3. ATlantic 66349 (20 miles from the Pacific...). We had a party line, which is when I learned what a 'bookie' was - apparently that's who the other party was for a while. We had to pick up the phone and listen first to be sure nobody was there.

    During high school my father would walk up and position the timer in front of me, set to 3 minutes. "Phones are for business, not chatting." Later, when I lived out of state, we'd be talking on the phone and all of a sudden he'd say, "Okay, great to talk with you, bye," and hang up. I knew the timer had just gone off (this from the same man who wrote me 12-page typed letters).

    Good memories.


  4. While I, my husband and kids all have cell phones....we also have land lines in the house because if there's a huge local emergency (like when the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis)the cell circuits overload and no one can make calls. We even still have one analog land line phone that plugs into the wall because that one will still work even if the power goes out. That one has a rotary dial that the kids don't know how to use.

  5. @Edith funny about the timer.

    Hi Jules..long time no see!
    We've still got a landline in CT because we're in a dead zone and the cells don't work here (needless to say, I don't mind)The power goes out a few times year because of storms and the only phone that still works when it does is the 30 yr old rotary desktop model that I've had forever.

  6. ACademy 8 - 5387. Before the rotary dial phone, our number was 1394-R and it was a party line.

    The party line may have been the thing that made me learn to hate the telephone, and it's only gotten worse.

    The woman on our party line would screech at any of us who picked up the phone while she was having a conversation, then come knock on our door to screech some more in person. We all got to where we were scared to death to even pick the thing up! LOL!

    Donald has recently been doing some hiking on Grandfather Mountain and we decided he should take the cell phone with him. First we had to find it. Then we had to find the charger. Then guess what I found on there? Some message left while I was in Baltimore at Bouchercon. oy.

    I'm an email person.

  7. Sorry to tell you all but it was never "a children's phone," it's a "Teen phone with a teen line." Yes, my sister and I got one when she went to work for "Ma Bell" and she got an employee discount. And yes, Hank, we too had a pink Princess phone. Wish I still had it to hold between my chin and comfortable.

    Hubby and I both have cell phones, as do all our kids, but we still keep the landline for emergencies and when they power goes out. I have heard that 911 is easier now because your cell can be tracked between cell towers and your location pin pointed. This is all very new and it may depend on where you are at the time or where you live.

    I am on the DO NOT CALL list and I sure wish it applied to charities and polical parties. I asked Hubby if we could change our voting status to the party who will never all you? He just laughed. I dread election time with all its annoying phone calls. You can't even tell the caller off because they're all recorded.

  8. Oh I forgot.

    Chestnut 5-0311 was Nana's phone. We lived in Mercury 4 something. Isn't it fuuny I can remember Nana's phone number but not ours. Guess I called her more than I called myself. lol

  9. Rhonda, that clip is hiarious!

    Brenda: OOOH, Dial M - Grace Kelley husband calls, she picks up the phone, the man he's hired to kill her is hiding behind the drapes...

  10. Edith, Kaye - we had a party line too - on our "teen" (we stand corrected) line. And extensions all over the house for the regular phone. I can remember my sister's breathing, the tip-off that she was listening in. Then the click (no more clicks!) when she hung up.

  11. In the California quake and 9/11, I seem to recall tat cell phones that worked and land lines didn't.

  12. We still have a landline; in fact, although we have cell phones, they're pay-as-you-go and we only use them when we travel. We let our daughters take them if they're going to be out and about (NOT to school). The caller ID shows up on our TV screen if we're watching it, so we don't have to fight about who'll answer the phone. If it's unidentified, or a charity or political call, we don't answer it. Otherwise, the person it's for gets up.
    PS: I'm supposed to be proofing the typeset copy of DIE BUYING, but my eyes are crossing so I'm doing this instead. :-)

  13. I jump every time my cell phone rings--or chirps or buzzes or whatever (oh, I'm supposed to tell it what to do?). I still haven't gotten used to the fact that a female voice announces very loudly "call from Jane Doe." Then rings. Then beeps. Ack.

    I still have the first Trimline phone we had (once Ma Bell stopped leasing them to you forever, for a hefty fee). It weighs about five pounds.

    And to really date myself, when I first learned to use a phone, in the Philadelphia suburbs, you had to talk to a live operator and tell her what number you wanted. I always got flustered and ended up giving her my own.

  14. I'm with Roberta: the most unfortunate side effect is that I never talk with my in-laws anymore (my husband probably thinks that's pretty fortunate).

    I didn't experience the named exchanges, but I remember before we needed area codes and "1+" before dialing everywhere. And when it cost more to call San Francisco to the East Bay than East Bay to SF.

  15. Party about Sorry Wrong Number with Barbara Stanwyck overhearing plans for her own murder?
    "He's coming up the stairs!!"
    Anyone remember who the killer was?

  16. If my husband would stop turning off his cell phone I'd get rid of our landline altogether. But he is still one of those people with phone phobia. Maybe sometime in the next year, now that we have two mobile hotspots from Verizon for our Internet.

    We also just realized recently how few faxes he gets for business, fewer than one a month.

    If you don't like getting robocalls, etc, some phone companies offer a service whereby you input your "preferred" numbers (parents, kids, friends, neighbors), and everyone else has to input their phone number before the call can ring through to your line. Robocallers, and cold callers who sit in front of computer phone banks with headsets, can't get through. It's genius. Sometimes this is a "premium" service, as it is from Cincinnati Bell, but it's worth it.

    Hi, Hallie! Hope the rest of your trip after you left Hamilton was fabulous. It was great to meet you!

  17. We still have a landline, because I've lived in too many places with lousy cell reception to feel good without one. I generally make calls on it when I'm home, and prefer to receive them there, too. Since my son is not even two, he's not aware of cell phones yet, thank god. The way that teenagers sit next to each other, texting, without even talking to each other in person is a bit scary to me. My generation was lucky to have pagers in high school, although that often suggested you dealt pot, too. :p Those were the early days of internet chat rooms, all on dial-up modem, of course.

    I suppose I'm probably young enough that I still crack up at seeing the big clunky portable landline phones in 1990s movies, because my dad had one that he lived off of during that same era. In the mid-80s, when I was a child living in Colorado, I found the wall-mounted kitchen telephone fascinating to play with. It had a long curly plastic cord, and it kept stretching each year, because my dad used to pace when he'd get on the phone. He'd pass through the dining room and into the living room, back and forth, stretching that cord to within an inch of its life. We used to wait for him to pull the cord out of the receiver, but it never happened. Around the time we moved out of that house, that cord was so long it rested on the floor.

    A classic movie that resonated with me in childhood wasn't telephone-centric, but it was more the quality of Cary Grant's acting on the telephone that makes it powerful to me. Anyone remember "Arsenic and old lace," the Frank Capra film from the mid-40s? Some of the best scenes are Mortimer (played by Grant) on the phone with various people--his moods kept changing over the course of the film (having aunts who are angel of mercy killers can do that to a person) and impacted each call he made or received. Gotta love the calls to Happydale sanitarium to place his aunts and his lunatic brother (Teddy Roosevelt) and thus prevent them from murdering any more sad, lonely men--"Everybody's happy at Happydale." :p One of my all-time favorites, that movie, even though I haven't seen it in years.

  18. Oh, Rebecca - love to be reminded of Arsenic and Old Lace, and the Brewsters ("Insanity runs in our family. It practically gallops.")

    Phone call Mortimer (Cary Grant) Brewster makes:
    "Hello... Operator? Can you hear my voice? You can? Are you sure? [Hangs up] Well, then I must be here."

  19. Hey, Karen! The pleasure was all mine. Spring was in full swing in Ohio - now it finally is here in the Boston area, too.

  20. Rosemary, I missed that movie. Gonna get it now on Netflix. I'm a big Barbara Stanwyck fan.

  21. All the stories about parental guidance vis a vis phone use makes me worry for kids these days, who have zero such oversight. Parents have no idea whatsoever what their kids are up to on their cell phones. I know there are ways to block kids' phones so they can only use them for certain things, but how many parents are going to wrest their kids' phones away from them long enough to manage such controls? I know my brother does not do that with his sons' phones, and because of the divorce the kids spend a LOT of time on their own.

    And we thought we had trouble keeping tabs on our daughters' Internet use. Oy.

    Hallie, the tulips are blooming now, and the trees are almost in full leaf. And the Miami River, which I said almost never floods? Almost overflowed its banks this past week, we've had so much rain in the last couple weeks.

  22. Hilltop 59757 and I called my cousin Carla so many times back then I still remember hers: FRanklin 43249.

    The coolest thing EVER to hit our household when I was a teen was my extension so I could talk to boyfriend Freddie from the privacy of my room. Oh God, how I would stare at that phone, wishing it to ring. Checking to see if it worked. Rushing off calls if they weren't from HIM.

    I cancelled my second landline last year but still prefer talking on the one that's left. Much clearer. And, thanks to conferences, I learned to be a seasoned text-er. And love it.

    Okay, here's what I hate: the not-so-close friend who decides to catch me up on her life on her cell phone while she's driving through the mountains. And blocks her number.

    For movies - what about Joan Crawford "I Saw What You Did"? The two teens who unknowingly crank call a murderer with "I saw what you did and I know who you are." Creepy.

  23. I remember when our home exchange was Kenwood and the number was KE 6-5636. Today, two of my kids don't have land lines, and the other two don't answer them:-)
    When I was married to a surgeon, the phone in the middle of the night always meant bad news, and I used to find myself huddled under the covers at the foot of the bed. Hmmm-wonder if that's part of why I'm not married to him anymore.

  24. I can see I really, really need to catch up on my classic movies . . . thanks for such fun comments, everyone!

  25. Surely call services have gone a long way.

  26. If you imagine the innovations when it comes to telecommunications, you will really be surprised at how far it has become. Nowadays, there are interactive voice response software that many companies are using.

  27. If I’m not in the mood I expect all calls and text that I receive will be negative. I practiced being optimistic and that helped me a lot. I just make it sure that I will not tolerate some things that need some action though.

  28. I really missed those times, too. Now I almost never touch my land lines, because almost all (maybe more than 90%) incoming calls are from telemarketers and scammers. That's very annoying. I never answer calls on my land lines anymore now. It's a waste of time. Almost everyday |I could also read people complaining about similar thing at sites like and another similar websites. This sweet communication tool has been wrongly used by those criminals. Sad, but we should move on.