Remember that sound? My grandkids have never even heard that sound.
It was a demanding sound, insistent on a response. Especially before the invention of the answering machine and call display.
Who could it be? What could they want?
As a teenager it was a thrilling sound. No matter where I was in our split-level home I could get to the kitchen by the third ring, easily beating out all four other family members to pluck that heavy beige handset from its cradle, take a deep breath, drawl, “Hello,” as though I wasn’t out of breath. “Oh Russ,” blush, giggle, twirl beige cord, “I’m good. Whatcha doin?” I pictured him in his white t-shirt and bad-boy dungarees, cigarette smoke emanating from him in an intoxicating way that I didn’t fully comprehend. We could talk for hours, but were we really saying anything? And that was, of course, limited by what the rest of the family would allow. Maybe they were waiting for a call? You could tell by the lingering, and questioning looks that became annoying looks as time went on. Oh, and remember the jingle “Saturday noon till Sunday at six”? If it was between those hours, Mom or Dad might want to make a discounted long-distance call to family, in Toronto, or “down home” on the east coast of Canada.
The best was when they were all busy elsewhere – Dad tinkering in the garage, Mom in the laundry room, older brother listening to hard rock in his basement bedroom, baby sister watching TV. I’d have the whole main floor to myself, to speak freely.
A ringing phone could also mean a babysitting job. Ka-ching! Add to the blue jean fund. Could be a girlfriend – Karen or Dianne – wanting to talk about the book report for L’Etranger, or what to wear to the pep rally, or how hot that guy in our French class was. I mean, he had to be 14 – we all were and he apparently hadn’t failed any grades – but he looked 20. Could barely fit in the desk!
As I’m sure you know, ringing phones could bring bad news too. One time, after I’d just emerged from the shower and had my hair wrapped in a towel, I watched my face grow pale, paler, palest through the ghostly steam on the mirror. Mom was down there on the phone saying, “Oh, no. No. Oh no!” Over and over.
My 16-year-old brother was, at that very moment, in ICU in the hospital. I’d been to visit. Saw all the cords attached to him from all the machines keeping him alive. Was it over? Is my brother gone? Will I be the oldest kid in the family? NO!!!
No. Turned out another 16-year-old, the son of one of Dad’s co-workers, was hit by a car while walking on the side of the road the previous night. Gone. While I was tremendously sad for that family, I was tremendously relieved for mine.
You’d hold that phone to your ear and have a pleasant, physical experience, yes? A proper spot for your ear, your mouth. There was weight to it. It was made of strong enough plastic that if a caller made you mad you could slam it down with a satisfying THWANK! and (hopefully) not break the handset or the phone itself.
I do recall Mom bashing Dad over the head with the handset once. Trust me, he deserved it. This was well into the era of the DDs, not to be confused with the DTs. The Drunken Dramas. Another day, another drama. I don’t recall what the drama du jour was. His poor head, having suffered many let’s say “tippling incidents”, certainly didn’t need more hits. But the handset survived and Mom got to blow off some pent-up steam.
And 7-digit phone numbers! Remember those?! Sure, people kept phone/address books – I still have Mom’s, it has cats on the front, she loved cats. But – please forgive me for bragging – I think I have a special aptitude for 7-digits. 471-1732. That was my home phone number in Kilworth Heights. 455-8235. That was my late husband Hugh’s family number before they changed the exchange. I could go on and on.
Now? 10-digit numbers?! Who has a friggin clue? I love my kids madly, but I couldn’t tell you their numbers. You lose your phone? You’re hooped.
When I left the work world in the mid-aughts, we’d just started texting and BlackBerrys were still a thing. I’d spent a few decades answering phones in the offices of roof truss manufacturing plants and guess what? You knew you were busy because . . . the phone was ringing off the hook! I’m curious. How do you know if you’re busy now?
When I was about 18, my first job in the truss plant manufacturing office, besides making coffee, was to update the Rolodex. I updated phone numbers and addresses of all known customers, and also potential ones uncovered by stealth calls to every building department of every township office within a few-hundred kilometre radius. I had to print them all out neatly as there was no computer and accompanying printer to spit them out on nice little labels. Well, there was a clunky old typewriter, but there wasn’t enough Wite-Out to fix my mistakes.
Perhaps I show my age when I sometimes yearn for a return to a dumb old plastic thing that sits in a certain spot in one’s house and has a simple purpose: to make and receive calls. There’s been days when I’ve picked up my iPhone to make a call, then hours later I have to claw my way out of a rabbit hole of news, weather, memory pics, texts, email, Fitbit stats, the latest CBC Front Burner podcast, and a little Twitter for little scandalous titillation. Who was I calling?
Who calls anyone anymore anyway? No one wants to talk on the phone. No one picks up! We’re all on vibrate or do not disturb. Texting’s the ticket. And with emojis? You can emote what you wrote.
I have an urge to call my grandkids sometimes. They don’t have phones, of course. They’re old enough now, though, that they do have iPads, to play games and IM their friends. As long as they’re on Wi-Fi? We can text, emoji to our hearts’ content, even FaceTime. When we’re FaceTiming, they often distract me by turning themselves into cats, dogs, princesses and princes, a working man with a tie and briefcase even. Don’t ask me how they do it. I assume there’s an app for that?
I grew up watching Get Smart with his cool shoe phone. It was fun imagining what that would be like: a phone, with you at all times, in your shoe! Well, imagine no more, the future’s here, with a phone way more talented than the stinky thing Agent 86 plucked off his foot. There’s no going back, no “putting the genie back in the bottle” as “they” say.
There’s good and bad with every technological leap, right? The smart phone delivers the world right into the palm of our hand. It’s up to us how we use that power.