By Jim Heffernan
“I was born to Twitter, I was born to tweet, log me on to
Facebook, that’d be a treat.”
That might be a refrain for some, but not for me. I don’t
expect to twitter in this lifetime, a span getting shorter and shorter for my
All this was inspired – if inspired is the word for such
mundanity – by a Sept. 1 New York Times
column by Frank Bruni (read it HERE
) in which he
posited that the more ways we have to contact one another, the harder it is to
I’ve noticed that, too. Seems to me that in ages past, when
everyone had just one black land-line telephone maintained by AT and T, you
were able to reach people more readily than you can today with cell phones,
texting, voice mail, Facebook, e-mail, whatever. I’m so behind I’m not sure I
even know about some of the latest communication devices, AKA “social media.”
So, I’ve concluded that the trouble with America today is
that there are too many ways to contact people, causing mass confusion and
widespread frustration, leading to gridlock in Washington, extreme partisanship
in Congress and the legislatures, not to mention indigestion. OK, I won’t.
It wasn’t always that way.
There was a time in this sainted land when you could pick up
the telephone and a sweet-sounding woman would be there, asking you personally
what number you would like to call. “Number please,” she’d chirp, after which
she’d ring it for you. All of these women were known as “Central,” regardless
of which high school they’d attended.
“Hello Central, give me heaven,/ For I know my mother’s
there./ You will find her with the angels,/Over on the golden stair.” Yes, THAT Central.
I am old enough to remember Central. Talked to her often as
a child, calling my cousins. Their number was Melrose 4819, although sometimes,
just for fun, you’d say 481 apple. Get it? Central did not like to be joked
Various parts of Duluth had different telephone
identifications. We were always Melrose 4504, but other parts of town had names
like Calumet, Market and – get this – Hemlock. What was it that Socrates drank
at the behest of Athenians who didn’t like him, resulting in death? It wasn’t
One bad thing: party lines. I know they sound fun, but they
weren’t. They caused a lot of trouble in neighborhoods. A party line is when
two or more telephones are hooked up to the same number, so that all phones on
the line ring when someone called one of the party. And if somebody was using
the line, no one else could call out, but they could listen in. Bad. Very bad.
We had one other person on our party line when I was a
child, a mean and nasty old woman who would repeatedly complain that we
monopolized the line. Looking back I think she was right. And while we were
cool toward this neighbor in the party line days, when they ended we became
more cordial and realized she wasn’t mean and nasty at all, and very likely
went straight to heaven, for I know that she is there, you will find her with
the angels, over by … Well, you know.
Dial phones knocked out party lines here after World War II
and Central disappeared too, replaced by a woman known as “Operator.” Operator
was not nearly as much a part of our lives as Central, only responding to
queries about numbers that you didn’t know and couldn’t find in the book
(telephone directory, yellow pages and all). Operator gave what was called
“Information,” and also “Long Distance.”
Oh, but I go on with this ancient history. Really, I was
going to write about how as an adult I became what I call a phonephobe, which
is a person who fears making telephone calls. Utter fear isn’t quite the
emotion, but I resist calling and always put calls off if I can.
I think this comes from years and years as a working
journalist. Much of the news is secured over the telephone. You hear something
newsworthy happened somewhere and call someone who was involved.
Many of the recipients of the calls were surprised to be
called, or didn’t want to comment, or resented the calls, or would chew you out
for calling too late. One time I was told to call a civic leader who the city
editor said had made a speech earlier in the evening. You do what you’re told,
so I called the guy about 10:30 p.m. and asked him what he’d said in his speech
earlier in the evening.
“What?” he said in exasperation. I reiterated that I
understood he’d given a speech and would he kindly tell me what he said so that
I could write a story about it for the paper.
“That was last year,” he snapped. “I gave that speech a year
You can see why I’m a phonephobe.