Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Axminister and Esplanade

The first telephone number that my mother had me memorize began with the word Axminster. In Brooklyn, phone numbers belonged to a number of exchanges, and ours was Axminster, shortened to AX when you added the last five numerals that combined to make our home number. Axminster is a town in Devon, England. After our family moved from New York to California, our exchange was Esplanade, shorted by the telephone company to ES.

In those days, there were no such contrivances as call waiting, voice-mail, or text messaging. If you weren't home, the telephone rang until the caller hung up. Our rule was if we were eating dinner, you let the phone ring its brains out. If it was an important call, my mother would say, the party would call back. The other rule was that if the phone rang, my father would wait for someone else to get it.

We had one phone and it sat on a counter-top in the kitchen. Later, when the phone company offered a slender rotary model that offered revolutionary back-lighting on the dial, my mother put one on the nightstand in her bedroom. Now we had twice the number of phones that my father would let ring themselves out.

The technology was screwy: sometimes you could pick up the phone when it was idle and listen to the nearby country western radio station. In those days, the San Fernando Valley still had horse ranches and orchards scattered between the creeping subdivisions, and a listening audience that preferred Gene Autry to Gene Pitney. I'd listen long enough to recognize that the announced was ethnically and aesthetically as far flung from my Russian-Jewish roots as a Martian, then hang up the phone.

Sometimes the phone would ring but no one would be on the other end. Or, when you were lucky, you could pick up the receiver and eavesdrop on the private conversations of unknowing parties. When I lucked into those, I hung on as long as I could, turning the handset to the side in case they could hear my breathing.

When the man from the phone company came out and installed our first push-button phone, it took a while to get used to it. But you were less likely to dial a wrong number with it. I hated when you were dialing a number on the rotary model and your finger slipped out on the last digit, forcing you to have to re-dial the entire sequence again.

Those days, you made every call away from home at a public phone. I hated it. In my youth, you actually went into a Plexiglas booth, closed the door, and the light went on inside. It gave you a false sense of privacy as traffic sped around you and people walked to and fro on the sidewalk. But the booths smelled of urine or vomit and the mouthpiece reeked. You hated to imagine who had used the phone before you. There was always a half-empty soda bottle crawling with ants on the counter or a crumpled cigarette box.

More than half the time, the phone was out of order, left dangling on its metal cord by the previous user. Sometimes the connection was lousy and you'd reach your party and try to understand what they were saying between the static hiss or pop, shouting atop your lungs to be heard.

Phones had no slots for credit cards in the day, so you had to walk around with a pocketful of change, or visit a shop or gas station attendant to cash out paper money. Often, the phone would gobble up your coins and refuse to connect to your number. If that was all the money you had, you were screwed. The booths had white and yellow-page phone directories, but someone had always ripped out the page you needed to find your number. And men--for women would in no way do this--drew profane expressions or near-anatomic renderings on the glass. It was tough to take refuge of a phone booth in a rain storm.

When I was in Italy, you went into an office, gave the receptionist your long-distance number, and then sat in a quiet, clean, comfortable booth--in which no one had apparently urinated--until the phone rang with your call home.

Later, in Los Angeles, the booths gave way to half-booths, plastic kiosks that covered the phone but provided no shelter for the user. You often found a handset missing one part or another, having been slammed in rage by a previous caller. Sometimes you'd pass by the kiosk and the phone would ring. I could never let it go. Usually it was the operator asking for more money and you'd explain you had just picked up the phone, that you were not the guy who tried dialing Romania on a quarter.

The first cell-phone call I ever received came from Bobby Dubois in 1991. He was sitting in his four-wheeler truck, idling outside my home, yakking into a phone the size of a walkie-talkie. It made his day.

I held out, long after cell phones were in-vogue. I had a recorder on my home phone and if anyone needed to talk with me, they could leave a message. If I was late for an appointment or broke down on the highway, I'd find a phone at the gas station or convenience store. But my employer--a trendy web consulting firm--required that I have one, and they bought a cell phone for me to carry in my car. I hated it.

When I finally bought my own, I still hated it. I was pretty sure I had a small number of friends, but the damn thing rang day and night. For a while I was getting calls at 2 am from a woman in China. She kept calling until I asked a friend how to say "Wrong Number" in Chinese (Dwei Bu Chi , Ni Da Tswuo Le). Later, when I moved to the mountains, I found a cabin out of range of service and was forced to pay the company $200 to get out of my contract.

Last year my niece, Jess, graduated from college. I sat in the rows of well-wishers with my brother, his wife, and their two boys. Jess was in the long line to receive her diploma. My brother swapped text messages with her throughout the entire ceremony. The two boys swapped text messages with their pals. I was sitting in a row of constant typists.

Recently, my friend Joey advised me to sign up for a social networking website where people publish their sudden thoughts to hundreds of followers. Say you're in your car at a stoplight and suddenly understand the String Theory. You text your brainstorm into your phone and it instantly sends it to a website and the telephone's of your buddies. The entire world is texting the quality and frequency of its bowel movements to minions of foot soldiers in the army of insignificance.

Count me out. Many days I leave my cell phone home when I go out. If it's important, they'll leave a message or call back.

Today, when I call my parents at the old number, I can imagine the same phone they've had all along, hanging on the wall in the kitchen. It's a few steps from the sink and the mini-greenhouse window where my mother tends the houseplants she's collected over the years. If my father answers the phone--a rare occurrence--he can't waste more than a sentence or two before he hands it over to my mother.

Every so often my mother calls to alert me that I haven't been calling. She says the same thing even when I do call. So I tell her then, "This is me. This is me calling right now."

You want the honest-to-god truth? I have never, ever answered my own phone and heard the voice of my father calling.


Bill Stankus said...

Did you ever get an extra long coiled cord installed between the hand piece and the phone ... so you could get out of the kitchen for some talking privacy?

My dad never answered the phone either.

I like the clock accuracy of my cell phone but I've grown tired of being connected 24/7. Last week I shut it off and tossed it in a drawer. No mas.

Gabby said...

Yep. We had one, but I still never thought I'd have privacy. Walking off with the phone and cord made my family members nervous that I was talking about them...which of course I was!

tangobaby said...

This is such a great post. I feel like these are memories I would have had too and I miss them even though they're not mine.

Now I miss our dusty pink rotary phones that weighed a ton. I miss the sound they made and how it felt to dial them. And then I do miss those silly slimline princess phones. And the silly twisty cords.

I finally talked my mother into getting a cell phone a few years ago, mostly for her safety in case something happened to her in the car on a dark and stormy night. She has the cheapest, most annoying phone a person can get. It's eternally cranked up to high on the volume and on speakerphone. I can't take her anywhere now.

Maybe we were better off without the cell phones, except with mine I can email you from the train station. ;-)

ps. My grandpa refuses to talk on the phone too. Once in a while he picks it up, though.

Char said...

I remember party lines when I was a kid but I never remember much of the conversation. I resisted cell phones for a long time because my job involved me talking on the phone a lot. Then my dad got sick and I was driving 90 miles one way after visiting every weekend. So it became an emergency tool, until I caved. Now - I don't have a land line - only the cell.

And...I'm sorry your dad never called. One of my fondest memories is my dad calling me every Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. until he couldn't anymore. He always called me baby.

A Cuban In London said...

'--in which no one had apparently urinated--'

It is little details like this that make your writing so alluring. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Jennifer said...

In my latest post, I cut out a whole section about an old-school phone both, the one at Hollywood Beach, where the paint plant called after my grandfather was burned. No one had phones in the neighborhood and someone had to relay the message to my grandmother. Years later, after my grandfather regained his license, he had a few too many drinks one night and hit that same phone booth, totaling it.

There's a lot to the story, about a whole way of life that is gone and it goes from innocence to Vietnam to the 1980s.

I'll have to write more about it one day.

In the meantime, I enjoyed reading this post, kind of a personal evolution of phone communication. Interesting how symbolic it can be, too, how our family relationships play out in phone calls. Or in (un)familiar silence.