Recently, Roger Cohen wrote an op-ed in the New York Times extolling the virtues of landline phones. Cohen, a South African-born Jew who grew up in London and now comments about weighty matters of the world, seemed fueled by the need for a literary palette cleanser. Instead of analyzing political excesses or the planet’s baleful climate condition, he looked back to his childhood and remembered his mother answering ringtones and summoning him to a call from a chum or (more mysteriously) a chum-ette.
Cohen praised an age where landlines helped foster civility, punctuality, and social interaction. One made a date or appointment with another person and kept it — or else went to great and often desperate lengths to cancel it. Now, entire age groups can be cruelly “canceled” by younger cohorts with a mere tap to their cell phones. (Using the term smartphone here seems a bit snarky.) Back then, folks could walk down the street with their heads held high, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of surroundings without worrying about colliding with an oncoming texter.
When a landline device rang in the era before caller ID or robo-kill, the tones were remarkably anodyne. Customization or vanity responses were unheard of. Ma Bell owned the phones in monopolistic perpetuity and decreed that customers could get any color they wanted as long as it was black. Technology evolved slowly, or, more properly, reached the market at Bell’s whim. Touch-tone was a big deal, so were princess phones, coiled cords, volume control, and limited color choices when finally permitted. (Full transparency: My wife worked for New Jersey Bell as a customer representative for five years before she went to college and became a preschool specialist. She was the only Jew in a department of 30 women, replacing her predecessor, the former only Jew in the department, who was going on maternity leave.)
The ubiquitous pay phone demanded a nickel for years, until Ma Bell dropped a dime on us, a watershed event heralded by the pinging sounds of winged Mercurys replacing the hollower thuds of Thomas Jeffersons cascading down the slots. Then it went up to a quarter. O tempora, o mores. As a matter of etiquette, one never left the booth without running an index finger through the coin return to see if a previous user left some loot. And who can forget newsreels of reporters dashing to pay phones after a big story broke, or scrambling to press rooms where long-stemmed models with off-the-hook earpieces connected directly to the rewrite desk?
Answering the phone (and usually there was only one per household, until baby boomers) was less dramatic than opening a telegram, but certainly more substantial than responding to the friendings, influencers, tweets, memes, and posts clogging today’s social media. Shaming, sliming, bullying, and rage bait were done face to face, or ear to ear, not as part of a digital tribe. Although I couldn’t look the person on the other end of the line in the eye, I could judge from their tone and timbre, and yes, even their breathing, whether they were experiencing anxiety or exultation, ready to deliver a grave message or a mixed metaphor.
When finally allowed the privilege of answering my home phone, I opened with the stilted salutation: “Lazarus residence. Who is calling and with whom would you like to speak?” Hanging up on someone may have provided a dramatic denouement to a conversation, but it was regarded as last-resort behavior. (Oh, how those old Bells were built to absorb receiver slam-downs. No protective cases needed. And you could “speed dial” by keeping a finger hooked in the rotary holes and pulling each digit back quickly.) Even wrong numbers held a certain perverse charm, especially when the other person, often elderly or very young, rang up two or three times in a row and tested the limits of your patience.
Long-distance calls commanded a lofty status of their own. They were expensive and required the intercession of a special operator (enunciating in even more clipped fashion than a local operator). And don’t forget party lines, perhaps lowest on the telephone totem pole. Or forget them, depending on the etiquette of your co-conversationalists, who either got to know you better through eavesdropping or practiced a high-minded regard for your privacy. And regarding privacy, let’s remember the great legal lengths law enforcement had to go to before a primitive analogue tapping device could be planted. The whole process had a bad odor about it for years. Contrast that with today’s sophisticated tracking and pinging techniques, putting practically everyone with a cell on someone else’s radar.
The full flower of my youthful telephone prowess came to fruition when Hebrew school pal (and baseball nemesis) Davy Lipton and I cooked up a scheme to coordinate our bus trips to Temple B’nai Jeshurun in downtown Newark. Davy would call me, let the phone ring twice, hang up, and dash out the door to Clinton Place for the No. 14. I immediately would leave home, stride up the Renner Avenue hill, and arrive just as the bus came into view. We never misconnected and usually drew one of the few Jewish drivers in those days. (His name was Robert Horowitz. I know because Public Service, NJTransit’s predecessor, required operators to post their monikers above the farebox.)
More’s the pity that Cohen didn’t touch on telephone exchanges in his column. Before the volume of users necessitated a complete numerical makeover, a person’s geography could be gleaned from the letters preceding the digits. And I’m not referring just to “BUtterfield 8,” “NOrthside 777,” or PEnnsylvania 6-5000 of movie and song notoriety. Newark served as a premier example of alphanumerics back in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s when the city boasted ESsex, TAlbot, BIgelow, MItchell, MArket, MUlberry, and WAverly. Quite bucolic and British sounding for a gritty industrial and manufacturing center. But you knew vaguely which exchanges matched up with which wards, so if you lived in WAverly, which we did, and dialed BIgelow, it meant reaching out to someone a bit beyond the backyard or your comfort zone.
For me, though, the exchange generating the greatest fascination came with our vacation rental on Long Beach Island, and it began with uppercase HY for … you guessed it, HYacinth. Such a sunny, summery choice. Mom loved it, though I thought it a bit squishy. Looks of delight or disbelief would cross the faces of those with whom we shared the number. I knew that LBI, still relatively undeveloped in the 1950s, was a habitat for bayberry bushes and scrub pines, but hyacinths?
When I graduated from Rutgers and became a reporter for the Bergen Record in 1964, the telephone assumed a whole new meaning, becoming my conduit to local officials and sources, a sort of physical extension and partner of the typewriter. I disdained headsets and would cradle the receiver cheek to shoulder as I coaxed a mayor or council member about a burning municipal issue, or got stonewalled on an embarrassing story. The toughest calls came during Vietnam, when papers would get casualty information before the Pentagon released it and would have to notify the next of kin. The same wrenching situations arose when contacting relatives of accidents, crimes, or fires.
A few years later, as news editor at the Star-Ledger, most of my phone conversations gave way to verbal shorthand with my colleagues and the printers. Still further on, as night managing editor, I would field the most critical call of the day, or more correctly the evening, as it came near the stroke of midnight from the chief, who had the bulldog (first edition) run up to his home. I could hear the pages rustling on the other end of the line as he reviewed the paper and ordered revisions or pronounced himself satisfied. But throughout my more than 40-year newspaper career, I never did get a chance to call the foreman and bark out: Stop the presses!
Retirement meant dialing things down a bit, and that included my resistance to cell phones, especially after my wife and I visited Cape Kennedy and were informed that our models held more computing power than what was available to the astronauts on Apollo 11. Yet the Luddite in me persisted, and I resisted texting as grammatically untidy and burdened with too many abbreviations. That is, until I found the best way to reach my grandchildren was precisely this method. I received backs lots of LOLs and never an NVM. Gradually, I began a wary relationship with the cell, even using some apps. I especially liked voice command, except this time I was shouting for an old Laurel and Hardy clip in a doctor’s waiting room instead of a remake of page 1 in the newsroom.
Like snail mail, a landline dial tone still comforts my sense of the familiar. The phone’s heft actually enhances the feeling of adding weight and amplitude to a conversation. I know I’ll probably not speak to another information operator or let my fingers do the walking through the yellow pages, but one thing remains a constant: Whether it’s a cell or a landline, I still can’t understand the billing.