Friday, May 22, 2009

The Phone Bitch

In my last post, I wrote that I really hate talking on the telephone. I'm not sure when this came to be, exactly. Part of it might simply be chalked up to generational divide: to wit, I was born only a few years after "long distance" was still considered exotic. My mom can relate funny stories about calling home from college (Mt. Pleasant to Bay City, or about 60 miles all told…so, not exactly the continental divide, right?) and hearing my grandma in an absolute flurry on the other end: "Bob? BOB! Quick, come in the house, it's Sandy, calling long distance!" And he'd run in, and they'd each try to cram an ear to the receiver - something more easily done on those hefty wall-mount phones of the early-'60s - and talk for maybe 4 or 5 minutes, then rush off to get second jobs because, presumably, that one call cost like a billion gajillion dollars. Or something.

So, when I came along in the late-'60s, I inherited THAT kind of attitude about the phone. Each house had one; you used it, like an ironing board, for a specific purpose, and then you put it away. Cartoon silliness aside, no one really ever surfed on an ironing board, right? You used it for what it was for, and in the case of the phone, you called every once in awhile to check in, or to quickly make an appointment, and that was it. Here are some phun phone phacts that relate to the way I grew up with telephony:

1) You didn't own your phone: Ma Bell did. There were no "phone stores," and you couldn't walk into Sears and buy, say, a Mickey Mouse phone. You moved in, you used a NEIGHBOR'S phone to call Ma Bell (or you went to the local office in person), and they asked you if you wanted a wall-mount or a "standard," and what color (pretty much limited to black, olive, brown, and black).

2) When my mom bought and refinished an antique wall-phone (the kind with a separate earpiece and mouthpiece), she ran an extra line and installed it herself. When we moved from that house, Ma Bell tried to get the phone from her: since she "couldn't" own it, it must by default have been theirs. (She kept the phone. It still works, and hangs in her dining room.)

3) When making a local call, you only had to input the last digit of the prefix, then the 4-digit number. Thus, I learned most numbers of friends by only 5 digits: to call Eric, I dialed 26264. This, believe it or not, still worked well into my '80s heyday with the phone: my friend Susan had the unbelievably easy-to-remember number 22446.

4) When I was in high school - HIGH SCHOOL! - and made a long distance call, the operator would actually break in after you'd dialed the number and ask you for your number…so they knew who to bill it to. A not-quite-friend taught me to give a different number to the operator, that way you could talk on the phone as long as you wanted…for free! Yayyy, free! Naturally, the person whose number I was actually giving called the phone company about these ridiculous charges; the phone company called the person I'D been calling and asked "Do you know anyone in (name of town)?"; and thus, it all came back to me. In a corporate gesture that wouldn't even be contemplated today, let alone put into action, the woman who talked to my parents about all this asked if she could basically scare the shit out of me with threats of juvvie, etc. Then, having reduced me to tears, she forgave the entire bill. WOW.

As a grade-schooler the phone was simply a kind of walkie-talkie: I'd ring Eric, ask to come over, and hang up. Why waste time? By high school, though, that waste of time was exactly what I craved, and Susan and I would spend hours - I kid you not, hours! - on the phone in the evenings, delving into the kind of meticulously detailed drama that would make a Desperate Housewife shed tears of boredom. When I was chasing Y., I discovered that calling from home was long-distance…but calling from the phone BOOTH was a 10¢ local call. Boom! Drive down to the public phone - literally a booth, by the way - insert one thin dime, and talk for as long as we wanted. Crazy. I was, in the term we used at the time, a Phone Bitch.

And I think that's what happened: I had my entire life's phone conversations in one go, a 5-year period from 8th grade through senior year. In college the phone reverted back to a hook-up device: whose house are we drinking at tonight? And then hang up, buy beer, and go. Since then things have only gotten worse, especially with email being so easy to use. Look at me: I'd rather waste time by sitting here typing for 30 minutes, than I would by calling a friend I haven't spoken to in years. (Sorry, Brent. Miss you! I was just listening to Hagar the other day, and I thought of you…call me! Leave a message!) I'm incredibly lucky to have tolerant friends who know I mean no disrespect to either them or the friendship by not returning calls. (Mike! Sorry I missed the "guy night" last Saturday…I was alone with Roz for the weekend. Oh, and happy anniversary from a few weeks ago! Call me! Leave a message!) I even tell my students not to call me, although with their obsessive yammering on cordless phones, that's actually a life-saver. But, I literally say those words in class on syllabus day: "I hate the phone, and if you call my office I probably won't answer it, and if you leave a message I probably won't return the call. Just…email me."

Sometimes it's the interruption: calls seem to come in right when I'm working on perfecting my hydrogen fuel-cell, and before I can get off the line that last equation slips out of my head and there I am, back at square one. Or, they come at the end of the day, when I'm pooped and just want to guzzle wine and watch movies. My mom always apologizes for catching me in these moments, and she's actually someone I enjoy talking to! It's my voice that gives it away: I'm wooden and unanimated on the phone, and I don't know why. In person I'm quite lively and energetic, but the phone just puts a damper on that for some reason.

Maybe that's why blogging appeals to me?


Blogger Gknee said...

Facebook, blogging, twitter has saved me from the evils of phone conversations. Although I do call my mom everyday..She's 80 and know..she's Mom :)

4:26 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

My mom also tends to call when I'm about ready to relax with wine and dinner, a problem I attempt to circumvent by calling her earlier in the day, when she's about to take a nap or just got back from church or working out or something. But since she's my mom, she sucks it up and acts like it's no big deal, whereas when it's me, I'm an ingrate and ask if I can call back later. I suck.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Strangeite said...

I too think I used my all of my allotted patience for phone conversation back in high school. I believe I was born about one decade later than you, so I had the luxury (or misfortune) of having my own phone in my room. Now, any phone conversation that lasts more than 5.7 seconds annoys me.

While we are on the topic of phones, at some point in time on either my blog or yours, I mentioned having a Captain Crunch whistle. You asked what the hell a Captain Crunch whistle is and I failed to respond.

AT&T's long distance trunk lines were controlled by sound. 2600 hertz was the frequency that would disconnect a long distance trunk from one end and put the other attached end (your end) into an operator mode. Free long distance calls was just the beginning of the fun one could have once you had access.

Cap'n Crunch cereal but into their boxes a small toy whistle that when played emitted exactly a tone at 2600 hertz. So back in the phone phreaking days (proto-hacking) when you saw someone with a Captain Crunch whistle on their keychain, you knew you had met a like minded individual.

By the time I was old enough to care about such things, the 2600 hertz tone no longer worked, but the symbol remained. Today, 2600 the magazine is named in honor of that toy whistle.

I am now old and out of touch with the hacking world, but I still try and march myself down to Sqecial Media to buy my copy of 2600. Every time I am paranoid that it will have finally gone out of print, but some how, it keeps plugging along.

1:57 PM  

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