I got an updated debit card in the mail, with a sticker attached giving me the number to call to activate it. It’s an automated system that’s not hard to work through, and I was done in less than a minute. But I was thrown by something I heard in the opening instructions: “To use this service, you need a touchtone phone. If you have a rotary phone, please contact your financial institution.”
A rotary phone? I haven’t seen one of those in this century, even on trips to Europe, where they hung on to that technology a lot longer than we did. In fact, we haven’t had any kind of landline phone in our house — desktop, wall, or other — for about a decade. There’s probably a leftover handset or two in a box in the basement, but I’ll be damned if I know which one.
Martha and I each have an iPhone, and that’s what we always use. Sometimes we use them to communicate from upstairs to downstairs, like in those old horror movies where someone was warned, “The call is coming from inside your house!” In our case, I’d reply, “Oh, yeah, that’s my wife.”
It’s remarkable how much phone technology has changed in just a couple of generations of my family. When my mother was born, she lived with her parents in an apartment building in the Bronx, where neither they nor any other tenant had a home phone. If you needed to make a call, you went down to the candy store and put a nickel in a payphone.
Eventually, my grandfather got a job with an insurance company that required him to be available more often — he couldn’t keep running up and down the stairs to make or accept calls. But he knew that if they installed a regular phone in the apartment, the neighbors would start banging on the door at all hours of the day and night asking to use it to call their one or two relatives who also had phones. So my grandfather came up with a brilliant idea: he had a pay phone installed in the hallway of the apartment, and kept a roll of nickels in his dresser, coins that only he was allowed to use. That didn’t keep the neighbors away completely — early on, someone always had to talk to their Aunt Sadie right away — but they had to provide their own nickel, which helped reduce his overhead on the phone. Once the novelty wore off, the intrusions became less frequent.
I, on the other hand, grew up in an era where every apartment or home had a phone, usually a black desktop model or a dark green wall unit in the kitchen. No one actually owned the phone — we had to lease it every month from the phone company, along with the regular monthly charges, plus the cost of calling anyone outside our designated local area. I’m pretty sure my mother paid that ransom to AT&T for over 40 years — at a total cost of thousands of times what the phone was worth — until I finally bought her one of her own.
There was a system called “message units” that no consumer ever understood, but there was one phone rule every one of us knew: never call anyone long distance except on Sundays. The price of a call was based not only on how far away the other party was, but whether it was during the day, evening, late at night, or on Sundays, when the lowest rates kicked in. Except for businesses and emergencies, no American in the 1960s made a long distance call on Monday mornings or Wednesday afternoons. Whatever had to be discussed could always wait for Sunday.
Even when I went away to school, that was the only day of the week I ever spoke to my parents, using the tried-and-true broke college kid method of calling them collect, having them refuse the call, then calling me back, so it was on their dime. Still, the conversation lasted five minutes, tops. What do you think, we were made of money?
By the time my daughter went to college, she could call us any day, any time on her iPhone, with no concern for whether the call was local or long distance, because the cost was the same: zero, regardless of how long we talked. Even better, when she studied in Argentina for a semester, she could Facetime with us — a video phone call! — for free!
Just like my grandfather couldn’t have imagined the cellular and wi-fi connections we have today, I have no idea what telephony will be like for the next generation. They’ll probably look back on ours the way I look back on rotary phones, and ask, “You mean you had no hologram capabilities?”