On Drunks, Cells, and Phone Lines

Today I gave up something that has been a part of my life for over 48 years. Since before I can remember, I’ve had access to one. In my growing up years, it was there. When I was finally on my own, I paid for my own. But today – and against the advice of my mother – I broke free of this thing I thought I had to have.

Today I got rid of my land line telephone.

Land lines were a given where I grew up. We had a phone, but not like the phone you have in your house now. This was a rotary phone that hung on the wall of our kitchen. Black. I think all phones were black, because who would want a phone to be a different colour?

Pressing buttons is easy, but a rotary phone took finesse. Dialing it was fun, but it took a while. To dial a zero, for example, took an hour and eight minutes. You put your finger in the “zero” hole, pulled it up to the right (clockwise, if that phrase has any meaning to you), and let go. It would make some satisfying clicking noises.

If you realized that you dialed incorrectly, you had to hang up and start over. If there were a lot of 9s and 0s, you could be in for a long day.

Our phone was on what was called a “party line”. A party line is like a regular phone line, except you share it with three or four other families. Let’s say that you wanted to call someone. You picked up the phone. If you heard other people talking, you knew the line was busy.

That’s right. On a party line, you could hear the other people talking. Proper etiquette said that you would immediately hang up, but … let’s face it, no one’s perfect. I’m sure there were as many conversations “accidentally” overheard as there were conversations.

I suspect there were fewer extra-marital affairs happening back then. Imagine this scenario:

Guy: Oh baby. I can’t wait to sneak out on my wife and see you.

Girl: I can’t wait.

-Heavy breathing-

Girl: Oooh. You’re all excited and breathing heavy.

Guy: I’m not breathing heavy. I thought you were … Crap! Mrs Johnson, is that you listening in?

Mrs Johnson: You should be ashamed of yourself, Johnny Miller. I’m telling your mother.

While the line was in use – or busy, as we used to call it – you could not use it to send or receive calls. That’s right … you couldn’t use your own phone. As mentioned, though, you could listen in. Unless you had a conscience. Which my sister didn’t.

I’m sure those of you who are younger are shocked to hear of this invasion of privacy. I know that the internet is much more private and secure.

Then we moved to standard phone lines. No sharing. A dialtone every time you picked up the phone. Heaven. Long distance charges became less, which encouraged more phoning. In the old days, long distance was so expensive that it was cheaper to pile your kids into your gas guzzling, 9 miles per gallon, 47 foot long Buick and drive 700 miles than it was to call to make sure there was someone home.

“Are they home?”

“Nope.”

“Well, still cheaper than phoning.” [Turn car around and head home.]

The first time I saw a cordless phone was in a movie. It was some schlocky 80s flick with Anthony Edwards. You know, Goose from Top Gun. But younger. Without a mustache. With hair. Goose was sitting by a pool with a cordless phone. He said something like “I’m coming to you cordless!”

I thought that Hollywood sure took liberties with reality. There was no such thing as a cordless phone.

Next came cell phones. People with cell phones all had one huge arm, because cell phones were the size of a two litre milk jug and weighed 46.5 pounds. (Yes, I noticed that I mixed Imperial and Metric units in one sentence. Thanks PM Trudeau for bringing in the metric system in grade 7. The worst of both worlds.)

One of my favorite cell phone stories happened in Hawaii. Sue and I were on a bus tour around Oahu. Cell phones, at this time, were around but not common. We’re listening to the tour guide when the guy in front of me yells out “What the f*ck? You said you would have it yesterday!”

I thought to myself “Lord, why is it that the crazy ones are all huge?” This guy was about 6’6” and weighed well over 400 lbs. Why couldn’t he be 5’2”, 110 lbs with an overbite and thick glasses? (I’m not trying to be stereotypical, here. I’m just saying that a tiny crazy man seems less scary than an extra large one.)

I braced myself for him to lose it and start throwing passengers around – and off – the bus. I had a strategy. If he came my way, I was going to throw the small, bespectacled man with an overbite sitting across the aisle into his path.

The giant was mad. Ranting and raving. Talking to himself.  Everyone else was sitting serenely, ignoring him.

Then I happened to see something glowing on his ear. “Ah,” I thought. “The mother ship has finally made contact and is calling him home.”

Sue, meanwhile, was calm beside me. “Don’t you see the crazy guy?” I asked.

“The guy talking on his bluetooth?” she asked.

His what now? Sure enough, he had some sort of headset that was connected wirelessly to his cell. The giant finally ended his call. To this day, I still think he was a douche, but I wouldn’t say it to his face.

Cell phones now are amazing. I know you all think your smartphones are too slow, but they’re really not. My cellphone has a gajillion times more computing power than the first computer I ever owned – a 386sx with 1 megabyte of RAM. Did you know they still use 386 chips? Yeah, they still use them. In microwave ovens.

So, I moved to the cellular age – or, as I like to call it, the Star Trek age. Remember Kirk and Spock? They’re on a planet. Everyone in a red shirt is dead. Kirk pulls out a communicator (which looks and works suspiciously like cell phones do today – by magic) and barks “Mr Scott. Two to … beam … aboard.”

I’m waiting for transporters to come next. Sort of like faxing, but with people. For those of you who don’t recognize “fax”, this was a method for sending a paper document to another place on earth through the phone lines. It was a bit like using a photocopier (properly called a Xerox machine) that printed to another photocopier … on the other side of the world!

Now we just send an email which, I’m pretty sure, works through voodoo.The speed and ease of email has ensured that people realize the power and immediacy of the medium and treat it with respect. Thankfully, there haven’t been any reports of someone firing off an email in anger. Or worse, prematurely.

Although I am now completely cellular (yes, I’ll wait for you to get that one), I still have a landline mentality. What I mean is, it’s like I have a landline in my pocket.

“Is that a landline in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

I have never been tied to the phone. A phone ringing doesn’t need to be acknowledged, in my opinion. Even if it’s playing Brahm’s Requiem as though a dog is barking. This is not a habit that the younger generation (ie anyone under 45) has acquired.

I spoke with a young friend a while ago.

“Hey, I called you last night, but it went to your voice mail.”

“I had my phone turned off.”

-long pause-

“What?”

“I was watching a show, so I turned my phone off.”

-Silence-

“You turned your cell phone off?”

“Yeah. I don’t like to be interrupted while I’m watching.”

“Why have a cell phone if you are going to turn it off?”

“Well, I’m not required by law to keep my phone turned on. It’s my choice, isn’t it?”

“No,” he said. Seriously. “No, it’s not. You must answer all calls.”

“What if they’re in the middle of the night?”

“Especially then. It’s probably an emergency.”

This is not accurate. I have had a few of these “emergency” calls in the wee hours of the morning. They have all gone like this:

“Johnny Miller!”

Me. Pissed off, because I woke up. Because I forgot to turn my phone off. “I think you have the wrong number.”

Drunken idiot laying in a pool of his own vomit. “Johnny. Why are you mad at me? I said I was sorry about Gwen.” He begins crying.

Me. For the love of … “You have the wrong number. There’s no Johnny here.”

-Pause-

“Oh. You’re saying I dialed the wrong number?”

Me. Canadian. And Mennonite. Always polite. “That’s right.” And I hang up.

And I wait for it.

Ring!!!!

“Johnny Miller!”

Might as well go with it. “That’s right. This is Johnny, but I don’t want to talk to you. I’m still mad about Gwen. Don’t ever call this number again.” Wait until I hear sobbing and hang up.

Hey, if you’re up, you might as well enjoy it.

It’s weird to give up our phone number. We’ve had it for a long time. My mom still has the same phone number she has always had. Since the flood. Oh, she has a cell, but she just uses it for emergencies like if her car breaks down or if she needs to kill a few hours during the day while waiting for an appointment.

Mom was against me getting rid of my landline. “What if the power goes out? Then how will you have a phone?”

“Well, Mom. Right now we have a landline through our cable provider. [I have a mental picture of one side of my Mom’s head exploding] If the power goes out, the phone goes out, too. And then we use our cell phones.”

“But how will people get ahold of you? What if they don’t have your number?”

“Well, then the Captain will have to ask around for my number to inform me that I have won a cruise.”

“What if the people at work don’t have your cell number? How will they get ahold of you?”

I’m not sure how to translate me smiling into the written word.

If the idea of not having a landline is foreign to me, imagine how strange it is for my Mom. Ah well, she’ll get over it. Or she’ll stop calling. Hmmm.

Our number, I assume, will be recycled. I’m not sure how long it will take, but someone else will end up with “my” number. That’s OK. I’ve come to terms with technology. I’ve accepted its role in my life. Besides, my plan is, in about 6 months, to call my old number at about 3AM.

“Johnny Miller!” I’ll say.

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