I was sitting at my desk the other day when my phone rang. I carry my phone in the right front pocket of my jeans, and since I was sitting down, I decided not to fish around to get it. I made a snap judgment that the call was probably not important. This is something I do a lot now because more often than not, I have no idea who is on the other end of the call. My phone rings about six times per day, and five of those times it’s some sort of robocall, solicitation, or scam. The other call is usually from my wife asking me what I feel like for dinner. She has an assigned ringtone so I know the call is from her if the phone is in my pocket.
Telephones used to be our benevolent companions, but over the course of the last few years, a phone call has turned into something we dread. When our phone screams to get our attention, we shiver a little because we are uncertain of what is coming, but it wasn’t always this way.
First a little backstory.
Alexander Graham Bell is credited with patenting the first practical telephone, and his first words over the phone, “I’d like to order a large pizza,” have gone down in history. From that point on, telephone poles were erected all over the place as a means to hold wires, and as a medium on which to attach hundreds of faded garage sale signs and lost cat posters.
The main job of the people who installed these poles was to place them in the ground as crookedly as possible, since the phone company has never been able to hire anyone who knows how to work a level. Once these poles were erected and wires were strung, there was telephone service, and it wasn’t long before the entire country was covered in kittywampus wooden poles with wires, and we were all talking on the phone—providing the person with whom we wanted to talk didn’t live outside of our area code.
Long distance phone calls in those days had to be placed by an operator, as one simply couldn’t pick up the phone and dial up someone out of state. It was a complicated procedure, whereby one had to dial 0 and give the operator the telephone number that one wanted to call. The operator would place the call and intermediate until it was established who was going to pay for the call, and then the conversation began. A stopwatch was then set because every minute cost about twelve dollars. A typical long distance phone call went like this:
Caller: Hello Mother, it’s Henry. I’m calling LONG DISTANCE. Muriel had a baby. In fact, she’s had three babies since we last talked. I hope you received my letters. Everybody is fine. Gotta go. Call me when somebody dies.
People who travelled often had codes set up to avoid paying for a long distance phone call, because those were trusting times and savvy (cheap) people often misused that trust. Let’s say your name was John Miller. So if John traveled out of town and wanted to call home to let Mary Miller know he arrived safely, he dialed 0 from a pay phone, said he wanted to call Mary Miller collect, and gave his code name of Johann Sebastian Milleresky. When the operator asked Mary if she would accept the call, she’d say no, and that would be that. She knew John was safe, she saved twelve dollars, and Bell Telephone was none the wiser. People were shifty back then, but this is how it was because expensive long distance phone calls were made as often as transatlantic ocean voyages.
Phone calls of any kind were made over a black, rotary phone that weighed as much as an outboard motor. There were no other options. The phone was in the kitchen or maybe on a table in the hallway. There was only one phone in the entire house, so it was important to install it someplace central.
Every telephone had a cord between the handset and the phone body that was, at most, twelve inches long. Sitting while making a phone call was a luxury. The main phone line was hardwired into the wall by the phone company, and connected directly to a wire that was visibly draped from the house to the phone pole in the front yard, which as we have already established, was listing over so low that kids were using the wires as Double Dutch jump ropes. If anyone who was not a union lineman attempted to move a house phone, they would be arrested and sent to phone jail.
The telephone number was assigned to the house where the phone was located, so if you moved, you left your old number there and the new people got it. For the first few months, it was generally agreed that the new people would give your new number to whoever called for you, so that went like this:
New owner: Hello? Jackson residence. (This is how people answered their phone back then).
Caller: Oh, I’m so terribly sorry. I must have dialed the wrong number. Is this University 5-8219?
New owner: Yes it is, but the Smith family has moved one town over. Here’s their new number—Maine 3-5780.
Caller: Ohhhh. A Maine exchange. Fancy. Thank you so much.
New owner: My pleasure. Please tell the Smith’s that they left one of their children in the bedroom. We’ll raise him as if he were one of our own. We’ve called him Timmy.
Telephone numbers used names as the prefix, which generally referred to specific regions. Plus they sounded old timey. Our prefix was University, and I still remember the phone number our family was given in 1958—UN 5-9260. The area code was unimportant because it was seldom, if ever used. The number was typed by a union telephone company typist on a paper disc that was placed in the center of the dial. It was never to be removed under the same laws that govern couch cushion tags.
The exchange covered an exact geographic area, and since there are ten thousand possible combinations from four digits, that University exchange covered a large area. It was not uncommon when someone asked for a phone number to give out only the last four digits, which in my case would have been 9260.
But that was then. This is now.
When it was determined that the Bell System was a monopoly, it was similar to that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opened the door and suddenly everything was in color. The telephone world changed in an instant. Now there were princess phones and long cords and people bought their own phones. The phone company was no longer responsible for what went on inside of the house, so everything was fair game. Long distance calls could be made by dialing the number directly. Party lines died. Suddenly phones had buttons instead of a rotary dial. Then cordless phones with retractable antennas, then cell phones and finally smartphones. People had more phones than people in the house to use them. These were the glory days of telephones, which came to a screeching halt about three years ago when the Internet became deeply involved in the telephone business, which opened up the market for global phone scammers. It got even worse when mobile phones became fair game for scam calls. No phone was safe.
Time was, a prank call went like this:
Prank Caller: Do you have Prince Albert in a can?
Store owner: Why yes we do.
Prank Caller: Well, let him out before he suffocates!
Store Owner: Oh, you got me there. Good one. Now run off and whitewash the fence. Go on now. Git.
Unwanted phone calls are now more like this:
Unsolicited caller: Urgent! This is the IRS. Do you want to lower your credit card debt? You MUST act now if you want to release funds from a Nigerian inheritance. Please forward to me yesterday your credit card numerals, your CVC2 code, PIN cipher, date of birthday, mother’s damsel name, blood type, your checking account routing number, the name of your first pet and the name of your kindergarten teacher. This is NOT a spoofing scam. Honest. I’m not calling from Costa Rica.
It’s gotten to the point where I don’t answer the phone unless I know who is calling me. The other day, I got a call that began with a common local mobile prefix, which the caller ID identified as coming from Russia. I’m pretty sure they weren’t taking a survey.
The scam now is that once the evil phone call is answered, the nefarious caller has vital information on you, which they can now use to get credit and open shopping malls or send their kids to drug cartel college. They can do this because phone scamming is a big business and very lucrative.
Older people often fall for these scams because they are lonely and they get excited that somebody is actually calling them and besides, we all know that Grandma and Grandpa always answer their phone because they come from a time when phone calls were nice, plus their wall mounted, avocado green touch tone phone with the twenty-five foot curly cord doesn’t have caller ID. When Grandma’s phone rings, she’ll break a hip trying to get to it before one of her kids or grandkids hangs up.
This new way of not answering the phone works out fine for me, since I don’t like talking on the phone anyway. Maybe it’s still ingrained in me that phone calls need to be quick because somebody might be trying to call. I’m old fashioned that way; so don’t even get me started on FaceTime. That’s simply unnatural, because if I wanted to talk to somebody’s nostrils, I would have become a dentist.
Still, I miss the days when the telephone was an innocent means to communicate. I vividly remember calling in to radio stations, hoping to be the fifth caller so I could win tickets or maybe an album. My mother always called from work at 8:30 PM on the dot to check in and say hi. Thirty-six years ago, I called Mrs. G. before she was Mrs. G. to ask her out. I found her number in the phone book. Who even uses a phone book anymore?
I don’t expect any of this to get better. As I’ve been writing this, my landline has rung twice. Our phone service intercepts robocalls after the first ring, but it’s still annoying. I’ve put all of our numbers on the Do Not Call registry, but that system is useless. I block the suspicious numbers on my cell once they come in, but a new batch always shows up the next day. I guess in this regard I do miss the old days. One phone, screwed to the wall, which was only used when absolutely necessary. Looking back on it, that wasn’t all that bad.