Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's For You!

Like any romance, an interaction with new technology begins with an irresistible attraction, followed by infatuation, a honeymoon period, a relatively content period of adjustment, then, the inevitable taking-for-granted phase which descends into constant criticism before the inevitable demonization and outright rejection. Think about it. Didn’t you love your first computer enough to tolerate, if not completely overlook its many shortcomings? Was it more than a couple of years before you were cursing the very qualities that made you fall in love in the first place? How long did it take you to start sneaking around behind its back, popping in to the Mac store to check out the prettier, shinier models with the bigger ‘hard drives’? And where is that big hulk of plastic and wires now? On some container ship, traveling across the Pacific to a scenic dumpsite in China? ….on a vacation? Shame on you!

Today, I would like to trace the history of another modern piece of technology that changed everything humankind ever knew or did before it showed up. For the record, it’s a Canadian invention, even though many Americans have tried to take credit, as they often do in such circumstances. Therefore, you won’t see Ken Burns making any tedious, albeit, thorough documentary about it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

I am speaking, of course, of the telephone. That little device now condescendingly referred to as a ‘land line’ by the latest generation of users (we are long past the honeymoon phase) has, in a little over a hundred years, changed everything that went before, from where, why, when and how people communicate with each other to our entire sense of time and place. What used to be totally inappropriate or even, alarming behavior, has become commonplace.

Think about it. A few years ago, if you had seen someone walking down the street, babbling away in an intense conversation with himself, what would you have immediately concluded? Wouldn’t you have crossed to the other side of the road, just in case? These days, do you bat an eye? If you tsk, tsk, you have already joined the ranks of the demonizers, proving my thesis!

We all know how excited old Alexander Graham Bell was to get a response to his first call to a Mr. Watson, and some of us have even visited his house/museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, while others have been right there but didn’t even bother, opting, instead, to go for a lobster dinner, but to get a really clear picture of how exciting this miracle of human interaction was to the general populace, watch the opening scenes of one of my favorite old movies, “Meet Me in St. Louis”. At dinnertime, the entire family gets to anticipate and then listen in to a ‘long distance call from New York’, placed by a swain calling the eldest daughter (the one who’s not Judy Garland). The reason they can all eavesdrop is because the machine, cumbersome and enormous and encased in mahogany (like all first models of any new technology) hangs on the wall in the main hallway. No one ever uses the phone again, during that entire movie. Judy still gazes across her vast lawn, longing for that ‘boy next door’, but she never phones him. Or he, her. God forbid! Teenagers have yet to discover the urgency for constant verbal contact and besides, in is original form, the telephone just too ungainly to sneak into your sleeve so you can lean on your wrist and secretly communicate with your boyfriend during your math class. In “Meet Me”, a telephone call, from New York, no less, was a big deal, treated with appropriate respect and awe. It raised the social standing of the daughter considerably, instead of being the cause of a visit to the Principal’s office for a reprimand. (Notice I didn’t say ‘detention’ since that device, like that old wall phone in the hallway, has also long-gone on some slow boat to China).

Back in the days when I first noticed the telephone, it continued to hold a place of conspicuous honor in the front hallway. Although some of my family and friends still had to reach up high on the wall to converse into older models, my family, newly ensconced in bungalownian splendor in suburbia, had the latest design, a shiny black upgrade. It still sported that huge circular dial, the bain of every manicure. But who knew about manicures unless you were a perky secretary moving to New York to work on Madison Avenue, sleep with the boss and never even get engaged, in a Rona Jaffe novel? The phone perched on the little shelf attached by wrought iron to an upholstered seat. Right under the telephone was a specially designated opening which accommodated something called a ‘telephone book’ in which were listed all the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone in the entire city! If you had any need for privacy, you could, if the cord was long enough, carry the contraption into the front hall closet and bury yourself beneath the winter coats for sound insulation. But long cords came much later. As did my need for them.

Technologically advanced neighborhoods had already dispensed with the ‘party line’, a feature which required next door neighbors to share the same input wire, enabling them to hear the ‘party’s’ ring and surreptitiously pick up and listen in to each others’ conversations. Since there wasn’t a lot of entertainment around the house, in those years, this was pretty exciting!

There was no ‘call display’ either, so there was a great deal of anxiety and anticipation whenever the phone rang. You were taught to answer, “Gordon residence, to whom do you wish to speak?” That’s how the Andersons and the Cleavers did it. Nothing less than a polite, “Hello” would do at our house, since my father received his business bookings on our phone. Without answering machines, it was crucial to inquire if the person “wished to leave a message” and to write it down, legibly, or else. When you placed a call, you would say something like, “May I please speak to Marilyn?” instead of “Yo!” since, without ‘call display’ you never knew who would answer on the other end. The sound of the busy signal was frustrating and you knew you were in for a long wait if there were teens in the house.

Speaking of which, we were the exception in that department, too. Our calls were strictly limited in number and volume for at any moment of the day or night, my dad might get a call for work. You might wonder why, in a household of three women, two of them at prime phone age and one trapped in suburbia taking care of them, why my father didn’t just install a second line and solve a whole lot of aggravation. Well, things like that weren’t so simple. Like a lot of things people used to do which now seem so ridiculous and self-defeating to us. in these more enlightened times, it seemed to be a better idea to see the phone as an opportunity for deprivation and a source of punishment rather than as a simple means of communication. How far we have come! Not! (A little current jargon injected here to give this rant a little historical accuracy).

I think the 50’s and 60’s were the ‘Golden Age of the Telephone’. The phone was the favorite technological device of the adolescent ‘baby boom’ generation and, as such, was ripe for diversification. In a few years, it went from being the weighty, black clunker moping in the hallway to being redesigned as a slim, dare I say, cute, pastel plastic oval, small enough to fit on a young girl’s night table IN HER BEDROOM! It was called, in a brainwave of brilliance, “The Princess Phone”. If you managed to get your parents to ‘coronate’ you and rent one from Bell (monopolistic behemoth), you would henceforth be known in your circle, as royalty, due the deference and respect that rise in status entailed.

The brilliant creation of the teenage demographic required the creation of products for that ‘sector’ and this one was the biggest hit! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but if you had been a teenage girl, like I was, during that era, well, you’d understand the enthusiasm. No longer a child, but not yet allowed the privileges of adulthood, we early teens wandered, undefined, until this little baby was created just for us. I have a reprint of a behavior guidebook, written during that era, which instruct teenagers on the niceties of living, (how to entertain without alcohol, how to ask for and accept a ‘date’, no petting, how any sexual conduct which ‘goes too far’ is always the girl’s fault, etc.) which devotes an entire chapter to how to use the telephone in a respectful and appropriate way. (As a teacher, I used to read it to the class to cheer them up near exam time. I liked to see them fall off their chairs in convulsions of laughter and disbelief, their cell phones spilling out of their pockets).

Suddenly, ‘The Princess” was on every female bedside table. There was no corresponding brown model for boys, of course, since even back then, young males were not disposed to talk much, either to each other or anyone else. If you had your own number, you could talk all night and day. One of my friends and I used to have a rule, to which we religiously adhered, that we could only end our conversations on the stroke of the hour….a kind of ‘talk around the clock’. If that minute hand slipped past the twelve, we had to keep chatting until it made its way all the way around again. We never had any trouble filling in the time. And that was when there were good shows on TV!

This cultural behavior was celebrated, at the time, in the opening number of a huge Broadway hit called, “Bye, Bye Birdie”. The song is called, “The Telephone Song” and in it, the huge cast of teens, take turns phoning each other with the compelling news that Hugo has pinned Kim. You might not think this is much of subject for a hit song, but first, familiar ‘Br-r-r-r-ing!’ of the telephone, breaking the silence in the theatre, sent shockwaves through the audience. The second call provoked a burst of applause. By the time the third kid answered the third ring, the house was brought down….as they like to say in the theatrical world. This was big.

This celebration of the telephone gave it it’s due, both as a communication instrument and a cultural landmark.

(I don’t recall anyone writing a song about the pager or the cell phone. Is there a ditty about plasma TV’s? “You Got Mail” just doesn’t raise the hackles, although you could make a case for “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson, I suppose).

So where else did the telephone have to go, but down?

1 comment:

  1. So great how much you recall and how well you tell it - I love this stuff!