Phones, now and then
Telephones changed a lot over the years. I was born in the mid-1950s. Telephones then were hooked up to a jack near the floor. The phone either hung on the wall or on sat on a little table. A technician from the phone company, that we called Ma Bell, installed the phone. Phones were obtained from a company owned store. Selections were plain, mostly black or tan. Princess phones in pink were introduced later on. The phone company issued installation times, usually a block of four hours. Too bad if you waited inside an empty apartment or a house without heat or air-conditioning. The phone company didn’t care.
An irksome busy signal was an indication the phone was in use. Gab fests could go on for hours, annoying those trying to reach another resident. Chatty family members often got into arguments over the phone. If you had to reach someone in an emergency, you dialed 0 and begged the operator to break in the line. Wanting to talk to your boyfriend didn’t count as an emergency. Yes, there were operators back then, coveted jobs that paid decent wages to mostly unskilled women. Operators handled overseas calls, looked up numbers for you, and connected you to emergency services before the 911 system was established in the 1960s.
In rural areas, the phone system was sporadic and not advanced. Neighbors shared a party line, which essentially was a loop throughout the area. If one resident was on the line, you waited until they finished to make your call. My grandmother in rural Alabama had a party line during my childhood. As a visiting city kid, I was fascinated by the concept. I listened in on neighbor’s conversations until my grandmother caught me and ended my prying little ways with a whack to my backside. A quick internet search showed that people were prosecuted for not ending party lines when someone else needed to call for emergency services like police or fire. The party line wasn’t phased out in the USA until the 1980s.
In addition to the phone of yesteryear including party lines, busy signals and long waits for telephone installations, there were public phones. A public phone could be in a booth or on a wall in a restaurant, airport, bar, library, office building, shopping mall, school, or just about any public facility. You inserted a coin, (a dime when I was young) and made your call. When your time was up, an operator’s voice demanded more money, or your call was cut off. As a goofy teen, we stuffed as many of us as possible into a phone booth just for the fun of it. I haven’t seen a phone booth in ages. I don’t know if they still exist. It’s rare today to see a public pay phone.
I grew up in a working-class New York City neighborhood. When a home phone wasn’t affordable, women hung their heads out windows that opened onto a cement courtyard and shouted for a particular neighbor’s attention. There were no secrets on our block. I heard it all. If the women didn’t talk from open windows, they sat outside the lone tree on the block in folding chairs and talked about everyone and everything. Men refrained from this kind of gossip. I always felt on display as the tree ladies watched my every move as I passed by. I feel the same way today. Groups of old women sit in front of our low-income apartment building, talking about who knows what, and stare at everyone who passes by. I try to avoid them by using the back entrance, even if it’s out of my way.
Fast forward to today’s cell phone also known as a cordless phone, dramatically changed the way we communicate, live and work. To add a detailed history of the cordless phone would be quite lengthy but it’s interesting. Motorola first introduced a cell phone in the 1970s and the phones become more sophisticated yearly. Nokia and Motorola dominated the early market, but Apple is the most popular brand today. Apple is also quite expensive. Samsung makes a less expensive model.
Cell phones are not just for talking. They offer internet connection, texting, bill pay, as well as electronic games. They store valuable information such as bank and financial data, telephone numbers and personal stuff. Further, cell phones offer the capacity to download airline boarding passes, gift cards, and the latest movies.
Naturally, when a cell phone is lost or stolen the owner panics. I volunteer at a major airport. Passengers are frantic when a phone is missing and demand we locate it right away. That’s just not possible but do our best to locate the missing device, even if the lost and found office is closed. I’ve seen passengers almost delirious with anger and/or worry about their misplaced cell phones. Cell phones have become like appendages to us and when they are lost and/or stolen, they create human misery. If I am outside, I always keep my phone in my purse. It’s safer that way.
Sadly, cell phones are also used for nefarious purposes like setting off remote explosive devices. They are also used by jilted husbands seeking revenge on ex-wives by disconnecting their air-conditioning, setting off door bells, and deleting files from their computers. Cell phones are not always traceable, so they enable drug dealers, thieves, and human traffickers to continue their devious trades. Technology, including cell phone use, has advanced to improve our lives in numerous ways, but it has also opened the door to criminal behavior in which innocent people are hurt or even killed.
Wireless services are available around the globe knocking off the traditional land line. Just about everyone has a cell phone. They are hugely popularly among the younger generation, less so among older people who may only have a pre-paid phone for emergencies. Cell phone use has caused an upheaval in modern society. How so? Take driving and cell phone use as an example.
Innocent people have been killed or gravely injured because a driver was on the phone. Driving while talking and/or texting is a distraction similar to drug and/or alcohol use. You may be engrossed in a conversation and not see the red stop light or the child who darted out in front of you chasing a ball. A driver can be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter for driving while texting or talking. It’s a selfish thing to do. In some localities, it’s also illegal. I personally do not use my phone when driving. I passed my road test in 1972 and have been a licensed driver since then. I lived all those years without talking on the phone or texting while driving. I see no reason to start now. Besides, I spent nearly two months in a rehab center after a serious car accident with patients who were seriously injured by intoxicated drivers. If you must answer a call or send a text, pull over. You may save a life, including your own or avoid a lengthy jail sentence.
Cell phone use is common in the classroom although teachers say no phones allowed. For some students, the phone is more important than the lesson. Other students pretend to pay attention but text underneath a book. Most teachers are aware of the student’s sneaky behavior yet seem incapable of stopping the trend. Grades are ultimately impacted. American students lag behind our Asian counterparts. Japanese and Chinese students for example far exceed American students in almost every subject expect perhaps English. Foreign students show more respect to teachers than do American students. American parents will sue a school or a teacher if their child receives a failing grade rather than look at their children’s weak study habits.
Cell phones seem to replace common courtesy especially among the younger generation. I’ve been in the company of younger people who, in the midst of a conversation, will take out their phone to check messages. I find that rude and inconsiderate. In social settings, most people are holding onto a cell phone. I’d rather be holding onto a book. It’s hard to engage in a conversation with someone who is glued to their phone.
Go into a mall, any mall, and nearly everyone walks around holding onto a phone. They aren’t talking to each other but walking around checking messages or texting on a phone. For all I know, they’re texting each other. I wonder sometimes does anyone talk to each other?
Then there are selfies. I work out in a gym. I see mostly young women taking selfies of themselves inside the workout area and inside the ladies locker room. Young women pose for selfies inside Starbucks, Dillard’s, at restaurants, in Petsmart and at the airport. Is this the millennial generation? In my era, we protested against the Viet Nam War and for Civil Rights. As the old Bob Dylan song goes, the times they are a changin’.
Cell phones are both good and bad. They are good because they are portable and can be carried around so if you are stranded in your car, you can cell for emergency road service. If you are running late for a meeting, you call and let the person know. If you witness a violent crime, you call 911 right away. You can conveniently check out movie times, restaurant menus and directions to a store. Reporters can file stories right away instead of having to track down a pay phone. But on the other hand, too many people are married to their phones. I recently saw a family of three in a café, Instead of talking to each other over coffee, they were all glued to their phones. Children as young as five demand cell phones from parents who cannot afford them. There must be a happy medium somewhere. I hope we can find it and not lose our ability to be human.