Once upon a time in America, families had telephones that were connected to their homes by a series of wires.
We called it a “home phone.”
And if you grew up during that time, when everything was okay and we were all gonna be okay, you probably had one in your house. Maybe more than one if you were fancy.
Ours was a yellow one, and it hung on the wall. The phone ‘handset’ itself weighed as much as a Ford Focus and it stayed secure in a convenient ‘hook’ or ‘cradle’ that did double duty as a switch. When the phone was ‘hung up’ on it, the switch was open.
As soon as you picked up the handset, the switch became closed and electricity passed through it. Alive. By the time you got the ‘receiver’ to your ear, you heard a steady, droning noise we called the “dial tone.”
In the old days, if you picked up the handset and did nothing, just left the dial tone humming, you would be automatically connected to an ‘operator.’ That was a human being who worked for the company that provided the service to your home phone. The dial tone would just stop, you’d hear the sound of ringing inside of the ‘earpiece’ or receiver, and then a person’s voice, usually a woman, would say “operator.”
Sometimes they’d say “may I help you?”
They were, in the old days, always polite and civil. You could ask them just about anything. You could ask them the phone number for a local business or a person you were looking for. You could ask them the time. They were professional and courteous. You could say “connect me to the local chamber of commerce, please.”
And they would.
Eventually, most operators were replaced. If you left your phone off the hook for a while, instead of being transferred to an operator, you’d hear a recording that said:
IF YOU’D LIKE TO MAKE A CALL, PLEASE HANG UP AND DIAL AGAIN.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO MAKE A CALL, PLEASE HANG UP AND DIAL AGAIN.
And after a few minutes of that, your phone would blare a loud, 90 decibel, intentionally irritating alarm noise to let you know to put the handset back onto the receiver. The natural, optimal state of the phone was to be hung up at rest, and lifted off the cradle only to make a call. If memory serves, it had something to do with the amount of lines “open” on the hardwired network.
Your home phone was a centralized hub, which represented the entire family. There were rules around calling. It was considered poor form to ring at certain times of day or on the weekend. It was gauche, for example, to call someone’s home during dinner, and the parents of that house would be well within their rights to treat such a call with rudeness and derision.
If you were a child trying to reach a friend, you would have to call their home phone from your home phone, and then you’d have to navigate their parents because by and large, children didn’t answer phones. There was always a gatekeeper.
“May I please speak to Andrew?” You’d ask if your parents raised you proper-like.
“Andy there?” You’d ask if they didn’t.
“Who’s calling please?” The parent would ask.
And then you’d have to identify yourself, because there was no means to do that on the phone itself. It was just a hunk of metal with a plastic enclosure. Which meant that every single time anyone answered the home phone in America, it was a mystery as to who was on the other end of it.
Every single ring, every single time, was a mystery.
The number associated with that home phone was a static thing. This is my family’s number. This is your family’s number. Some numbers were ‘good’ numbers because they had a catchy order to the digits or had a repeating number that made them easier to remember.
And you had to remember them. Or write them down, because some families had ‘unlisted’ numbers, which were excluded from the published versions of local phone directories. Thus, if you forgot their number, you were shit out of luck.
Those numbers became call signs for families. They were as much an identifier as the street number on the front of their house - maybe more, because you used them more frequently. In my town, when I was a kid, if you were calling in town, you only had to use the last digit of the three digit town exchange, and the four digit code after that. So my best friend was at 8-8673. Five digits. My other friend was at 2-3360. The girl I had a crush on my whole life was at 8-4568.
My family’s number was a ‘good’ one. Easy to remember. The type of number people would repeat back to me twenty years later in a bar in a distant city. They would drunkenly spout off my home number and say “I still remember it, man!”
Such was the advantage of having a good number.
With the advent of the digital age, home phones have become less of a necessity and more of a waste of money. Everyone has a cell phone now. Cell phones are superior to wall mounted phones in every conceivable way, and that’s without mentioning the staggering number of various things you can do with the space-age multi-tool known as a cell phone these days.
Now every person is within reach. Numbers for local establishments can be found on the internet. A nine-year-old with an iPhone can call another nine-year-old with an iPhone and never once have to pay a politeness toll to a gatekeeper. Your phone informs you about who is calling, to give you the option of just plain ignoring it. And of course, you can call every person directly, and never have to navigate the awkwardness of calling to ask a girl to a dance and having her father answer the phone and then immediately hanging up in a cold sweat of actual panic.
Home phones are becoming an unnecessary luxury for many people. Some would make a case for the value of a landline in the case of an emergency, but barring that, many home phones are just a hunk of much less metal and significantly thinner gauged plastic, sitting unused and dusty on a table in the den. An idle, useless pleasure for which you send fifty dollars a month to an international conglomerate somewhere.
Which is why my mother decided to cancel her home phone. After fifty-two years.
And why, when she told me the other day, I had a pang of something — nostalgia, maybe? — shudder through me.
“What about our number?” I asked. “We’ll lose our number!”
“I know!” My mom agreed. “I’m sick about it.”
Which is why, then, I set about going through a series of forms, all online, to transfer the number digitally into my name as part of a new Vonage service. My mom would shut down the line, but the number would live on, in my care, in a new, digital existence.
Lady C mocks me for it. She thinks it’s charming in one way, but unrealistic in another. “It’s just a number,” she says.
“Yes, but it’s my family’s number.” I stress. “I grew up with that number.”
“Oooooh.” She whistles. “Oh, then by all means, pay 24.99 a month for it.”
And that’s what I’m doing, now. I have the number. It was successfully transferred last week. I don’t currently have it hooked up to a phone of any kind, though I was sent the means to do so by the VOIP provider.
Right now, when someone leaves a message, I get an email. I click on the email and it brings me to an online dashboard where I can click on the message and hear it over the speakers of my laptop.
Only telemarketers call. I delete them with a click.
I’m not sure why it felt important to me to save our number. I’ve been accused, more than once, of holding onto a sense of nostalgia for the past, and waxing poetic about a simpler time. A time with home phones. I’m guilty as charged, though I do love the technological convenience and superiority of my cell.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep sending online payments to Vonage for the right to delete voicemails digitally. I don’t know how long it will matter to me to protect a simple ten-digit code from falling into the wrong hands. The hands of strangers somewhere who don’t know all of the wonder that has passed through my family’s ten-digit code. Sounds of hope and joy, sadness and grief. Every wedding we ever talked about and every funeral. Every time my dad had to bail out my older brother from jail during the wild seventies. Every time we made a reservation for a dinner or when my sister was invited to a playdate or when I made a hockey team. Thousands upon thousands of hours of stretching the cord into my bedroom and closing the door for privacy and talking with friends and girlfriends. A lifetime of calls. They all happened over those ten digits, our number. That number still means something to me, even if it’s just a representation of a lost youth or a time when a family could all still be one thing, under one roof.
Right now, it’s a number that just lives in the ether, swirling in a digital world. And it’s still somehow, magically, our number. And while I’m not exactly sure what any of that really means, it feels important to me. And so I’m going to hang onto it for a while and see where it takes me, if anywhere. Maybe one day, I’ll convert it to a cell phone for one of my younger children. Maybe I’ll eventually hook it up to something tangible, something that actually rings in my house like in those days of yore. But for now, I’m content. It’s safe and sound, and if anyone who really needs us calls that number, they’ll still get a hold of us.
It is, after all, a good number.
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