Thursday, September 1, 2011

True confessions of a phonephobe...

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 generation.

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 reach anybody.

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 with, though.

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 Mountain Dew.

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 ago.” Click.

You can see why I’m a phonephobe.


Pattymae said...

Your blog today brings back memories! I'm your age, but I don't remember "Central". I just remember a voice at the other end of the telephone. I do remember my grandmother's phone number, though - Hemlock 2201. Weird thing to remember, but I'm a bookkeeper, so numbers stick in my head!
I don't tweet either, but I read my grandson's and keep up with the other grandkids on Facebook. Some technology is GOOD!!
Thanks for your columns...
Pat McClure

Jim Heffernan said...

Hello, Pat...Good to hear from someone who recalls the archaic telephone system here way back when. Gotta be of a certain age, that's for sure. My folks always referred to the operator as central. Hemlock, huh? Seems to me that was the exchange for the rich people in East End :). Thanx for writing. -- Jim

Pattymae said...

Ha! My grandmother lived at 7th ave East and 4th St. - not so much the rich east end! I can't remember our own phone number but it started with Jackson - we lived in Lester Park.
Thanks for your blogs!