Flash: they still make payphones. A good thing as I needed one the other day. (More on that later.) I moved to New York City in 1970 to begin a career. I used an answering service with real people to take messages for me. It was before answering machines. (A 1956 Comden/Green/Styne musical, Bells Are Ringing, ran for nearly four years on Broadway. It starred Judy Holliday and was directed by Jerome Robbins, with choreography by Bob Fosse and was set in an answering service. There’s a movie version with her and Dean Martin, directed by Vincente Minnelli.) There were two tiers of service. The most economical (about $15 a month and a remembrance at Christmas) provided you an independent number. You would give that number out or put it on your resume. People could call that number leave a message for you. Then, throughout the day, you would call in and ask for your messages. Or, the fancier tier, where the service would be tied into your home number ($25 to $30), and after a set amount of rings, the service operator would pick up the line and take a message. That was cool; like having a maid. It’s a bit sad, particularly in today’s economy, to think of all those businesses that closed and the lost jobs when answering machines were developed…like the innovation of self-serve gas pumps.
Going even further back, if I may, when I lived on the farm in Kansas in the 50’s, we had a “party” line. A group of 8 families were tied to one common line, like extensions. Sometimes, you would be having a phone conversation and you would hear a neighbor pick up their phone. There would be a little click sound. Mostly, people would say, “Sorry” and hang back up and just wait a bit. You could tell if they stayed on the line to listen, and then you would have to admonish them. “Would you please get off the line?” You couldn’t tell who it was, but you had your suspicions. If you needed the phone for an emergency and a chatty neighbor was on, you had to break into their call and ask if you could use the line. There was never a problem; emergencies in a farm community were sacrosanct. Our town had its own operator, Pearl, and all calls went through the switchboard which was in her house. I was in her house once. It was on a desk. It was the size of a large flat screen TV and had all those retractable cords to plug in and she wore a headset. This represented quite a commitment on her part. Not that much happened after supper, but there were those emergencies. While it wasn’t part of her job, she would pass on information. If my aunt called from California, Pearl would let her know we were at the ballgame. At our house we had a desktop phone like you see in old movies. It stood up right and the top was a cone shaped piece you would speak into; the ear piece, about the size of a pestle, attached by a cord, hung from a u-shaped hook off the side. You held the stand in one hand and the ear piece in the other…like Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. To make a call you picked up the ear piece to open the line and then cranked this handle on a wooden box…that got Pearl’s attention at the switchboard. Then you would ask her, kindly, to connect you with the Hoys or the Rooneys. If you were making an out of area call you had to give her the number. Madison 8-4594. Well, I get a head of myself. When we first moved to the farm, our phone numbers had 4 digits. 9113, I think was ours. Folks in the cities had the exchanges. In the early 60’s we got the upgrade in our area. The squat black rotary dial phone and a new number with an exchange. I don’t recall our new number, but I believe it was Madison, or MA. MA 8-4594. Like the movie, Butterfield 8. (Elizabeth Taylor, Lawrence Harvey and Eddie Fisher. 1960.) Not sure what happened to Pearl. Expect she may have been relieved not to have that buzzing, ringing octopus, 24-7, in her living room anymore.
I left New York City in 1991 and met my Darling shortly after. We were living in Portland in 1998, the year I turned 50. She threw me the most remarkable celebration which included, on the morning of my birthday, our 5 year-old Kid coming out at breakfast dressed as the Statue of Liberty and presenting me with three airline tickets to New York City. We had a grand time on that visit. Within ten minutes of being on the street the first morning in Soho near where I used to live and work, I bumped into 2 dear pals, one right after the other. The city was pretty much as I had left it, except every fifth person on the side walk had a cell phone to their ear. Now, of course, they’re as common as shoes. Gradually, over the years, payphones (10 cents a go in 1970 and 35 when I left), which were on every corner, in every restaurant, hotel or office building lobby, vanished. Recently, I was told the famous red phone booths of London are being taken out.
The other evening, I stopped for gas on my way home. I have seen warnings on pumps not to use cell phones as the static electricity from a ring can spark the fumes. I don’t believe it, but I usually leave the phone in the car when I gas up. Just as I am pumping, I look at my driver’s-side door and see the lock is down…somehow, I managed to lock myself out of the car with keys and the phone inside.
Just beyond a parking area where odd people skulk are two freestanding payphones. (50 cents, these days.) One ate my money, the other worked normally, but was really sticky and icky.
As I stood around the gas station, waiting for my Darling to drive in with the extra set of keys, I washed the windows of my Jeep…twice…and called back to my early days in NYC where I could walk in the park or along a busy street, or see a movie, and be alone, out of reach, untouchable, for as long as I wished.