NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Last Call

We finally did it — we cut the cord. After a lifetime of landline telephony, we pulled the anchor and sailed away from Ma Bell.

No wonder, then, why I’m feeling just a bit adrift.

We’d been thinking about doing it for a long, long time … every winter when new directories are dropped off on our front step, and we deposit them straight into the recycling bin; every time I dial a number retrieved from my ancient Rolodex, only to find it’s no longer in service; and (for years now) every time that dadblasted ringy dingy blares forth at the most inopportune moment, only to bring on the umpteenth idiot robocall or another hapless taker of surveys.

Though we left the official Ma Bell a long time ago, we’ve still maintained that connection to the civilized world via our cellphone company’s home service. We needed it in case of emergencies, we thought. We needed it so our older relatives can reach us (though we’re now the oldest ones left). We needed to keep the line open for the Publishers Clearinghouse Giveaway, who we somehow assumed would place an old-style call with the good news.

In other words, we dragged our feet. Though both Russ and I rarely lay down our Androids from sun-up to sleepytime, the thought of disconnecting the “real” telephone seemed so … final. Was landlineless life worth living?

So I asked a small question on Facebook: Was this a good idea? Turns out, my virtual friends are passionate about this issue and were just waiting for someone to ask them. One hundred forty-four replied! Exactly three of them told me, “Don’t do it,” two citing the possibility of cell towers going down and a third mentioning faxes. As a survivor of Michael Damron’s notorious assault on Fargo-Moorhead phone lines in 1995, the tower thing doesn’t scare me much. As for faxes, I haven’t needed to send one for a decade; a modern-day Damron could sabotage that service, and most of us would never notice.

The most common reaction on Facebook: “OMG, you mean you still have a landline? LOL.”

It seems that Russ and I were blithely unaware that we’d fallen in among the last of our kind — antique specimens still hardwired to humanity. So we joined the modern world ourselves. I’m beginning to relax.

What kept us wired, I think, was a combination of inertia and sweet memories. There was a time when installing your first telephone in your first apartment was an unmistakable sign of adulthood — a confirmation that you were so grown up that Northwestern Bell trusted you to forward a monthly check. For the first few decades of adult life, I couldn’t wait to get the new directory; the first thing I did was look up my own name. Yep, there I am! I’m somebody!

Until now, I’ve never lived in a home without its own telephone. Oh, sure, we shared a party line when I was a child and more easily impressed — three shorts. Like all the neighbor kids, we mastered the subtle art of picking up the neighbors’ calls, then giggling silently until our mothers caught us. It was rude and unethical, she’d lecture us, to eavesdrop. I never caught her practicing the stealthy art herself, though I still have my suspicions.

Our family moved often, as we followed her teaching gigs in the fall, then returned to the farm in summer. Getting the telephone hooked up was the universal signal that we’d, so to speak, arrived. Our state-of-the-art connection to the outside world was always black, always equipped with a rotary dial that chipped Mother’s fire-engine-red manicure, always mounted in its place of honor on the wall in whatever kitchen we inhabited. Though anything but mobile, it did come with a twisted spiral cord long enough to pull into the coat closet by the back door for highly sensitive teen-age conversations.

The phone’s thoughtfully designed receiver was sturdy and fit the hand just right, with the listening part snugged against your ear and the talking end nicely resting near your mouth. Conversation was crystal clear (or as clear as teens ever managed). Calls never ended abruptly except when my parents said, “Enough is enough.” It didn’t require any ritual of recharging. No one I knew ever dropped it, not even once, in the toilet.

But progress shuffled it aside. After 20 years of ever more demanding cellphones, I’ve become trained to not jump when melodic tones blare out of my back pocket. I’ve come to depend on the built-in phone directory that tells me whose call is coming in and relieves me of any responsibility to try to remember digits.

Texting has finally bewitched me, after years of the haughty conviction it was for the birds. Pecking at the “6” button thrice to achieve an O was way more trouble than it was worth, back in the era of flip phones … especially for someone who needs more than 140 characters just to say “hello.” Now, of course, that’s been replaced by a not-so-smartphone that arrogantly attempts to guess every word I’m trying to type, coming up with some of the most hallucinatory blurts since Timothy Leary’s heyday.

Today, in fact, I’m as inclined to avoid flexing my vocal cords as any text-crazed Millennial.

But maybe that’s because of all we have left behind. Remember when you could hear every word of both sides of a telephone conversation? When you and your caller could step on the end of each other’s sentences or interject without the sound gapping out? When you could carry on conversations while fixing supper, with the receiver safely ensconced between your shoulder and your cheek?

And do you recall being able to reel off your number without even trying whenever someone asked — instead of pulling out your screen to be sure? Oddly, though I still must double-check to be sure I haven’t mangled those cellphone digits, I can reel off the long-outlived cadence of my first Fargo phone number without a moment’s hesitation.

And that, at last, sums up what all this progress has cost us. Before robocalls, before phishing, before endless sneaky, slanted “surveys” — telephones deserved to be answered.

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