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Russell Frank: Cutting the Cord on My House Phone

by on June 08, 2012 6:19 AM

In this season of farewells, I next bid adieu to my telephone.

Having sold my house, and with plans to flit from address to address for the next year, I am cutting the cord that has bound my phones to the walls of all the houses I’ve ever lived in. No more landlines for me. I’m strictly cellular from now on.

In goin’ mobile. I am following the lead of a generation of young people and Third World countries that have gone straight to cell phones without ever passing through a landline phase.

But I am not altogether happy about it.

While service providers make a selling point of having fewer dropped calls than their competitors, those who continue communicating landline to landline pretty much experience no dropped calls whatsoever. Not to mention exquisite clarity, whether the call is coming from around the block or around the world.

Think about how many times in the age of cell phones you’ve had to tell your conversational partner that his voice was breaking up. Think about how many times you’ve launched into a long-winded account of some incident in the produce section, only to realize that for the last three minutes you’ve been talking to yourself.

Sure, when it comes to rendezvousing out in the world and changing the plan on the fly – later, earlier, this location, no, that location – mobile phones can’t be beat. But that clear-cut cellular advantage is nullified when you say “I’m walking past the Willard Building” and the receiver of these tidings actually hears “I’m walking past the _______ ____ding.”

So here’s a salute to the landline. My earliest telephone memory is of having one rotary wall phone. I still know the number. Those were the days of “exchanges”: Numbers from the same neighborhood began with the same two letters, which stood for an actual word, plus a number. We were FLoral Park 2-. I felt a kinship with other FL2-ers. My peeps! FL4 people were like cousins you only saw on Passover.

New Yorkers remember commercials that blared, “Call MUrray Hill 7-7500! That’s MU7-7500! In New Jersey, call…”

Earlier, there was Glenn Miller’s big band standard, “PEnnsylvania 6-5000,” and John O’Hara’s novel, “BUtterfield 8.”

Our second house phone sat on a little table in the vestibule at the top of the stairs. Then came touch-tone. Then, a second line, which necessitated new phones with rows of light-up buttons that allowed you to put one call on hold while you answered the other call.

The second line was ostensibly a concession to my teenaged sisters’ penchant for monopolizing the phone, but more than that it was a status symbol, like having a second car.

My father hated when my sisters got calls during supper. “Tell ‘em you’re eating,” he’d growl.

If more than one call came during mealtime, Grandma compared our house to Grand Central Station. I knew Grand Central was a train depot and didn’t see what trains had to do with telephone calls until I got that the common denominator was hubbub.

So how many specific phone calls do you remember? Here are a few of mine:

  • I’m 12 and have a mad crush on a girl named Jackie. This is the first time I’m using the phone just to chat as opposed to make plans to play stickball on Empire Street. Jackie lives around the block. In fact, I can see her bedroom window from my bedroom window. Before we hang up, we arrange to flash our bedroom lights at each other, which is so oddly thrilling that it must be some kind of pre-sexual semaphore system.
  • I’m 18 years old. Heidi calls and asks me if I’m free. I’m not. I’m with Lori. “Can you get rid of her?” Heidi asks. I don’t want to get rid of her. But I’m flattered by the question.
  • I’m waiting to hear from the graduate programs I’ve applied to. The phone rings. “ThisisKennyGoldsteinwewannaofferyouafellowshiptocometo Pennyouwannacomeornot?” I ask him to repeat himself. He says the same thing at the same speed. I ask if I can think about it. “Callmetomorrow,” he says, and hangs up. (IgotoPenn.)
  • Before Skype, we looked forward to the advent of videophones. Now we know there are advantages to not being seen. Case in point: It’s the early ‘90s. I am negotiating my fee for a freelance writing job. The amount on offer for a couple of months of work is more money than I have ever made in a year. In my calmest voice I tell the client that their offer is in the ballpark. But for the benefit of my wife, who is in the room, I pump my fist like I’ve just hit a walk-off homer.
  • Then there was the time – oop! Gotta take this call! C U next week!

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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