• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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And I Mean It From the Bottom Of My Heart

Remember when you used to spin your rolodex, dial a number and either get the person or get a busy signal? It was called making a phone call. Now, you get an email that asks when is a good time to call. Or an email that asks to set up a phone call. Or my favorite, an email that says: call me. Call me?  Or a text that says you can’t talk right now. Or a text that says you’ll call later. Remember pink message slips? Those adorable boxes you’d check off: returned your call, will call back, eat me, and so forth. In L.A., assistants say, “I don’t have him right now.” Or, “let me see if I have him.” And by this I believe they mean they can patch you through to their boss who is pulling his Porsche out of an In and Out while shoving a few burgers down his throat. Or am I projecting?  A call is no longer something you can just make. YOu have to email first, then text, friend, tweet, run the receiver between your breasts and paint the ceiling sky milk glass blue. Are you there god, it’s me Betsy. My mother has a cell phone she can neither dial nor field calls from. A lady on the train has a ring tone from a Barry White song.

When I was a little girl, I’d visit my dad’s lumber yard. A lady named Ann Esposito was the switch board operator. When a call came in she’d say things like “hold the wire please,” or “please allow me to connect you,” and pull a snake like cord from the switch board and plug it into a hole and push a lever;  I found the whole thing insanely exciting. And because I was the boss’ daughter, from time to time I’d get to sit on her lap and pull the snake-like cord and plug it into the big board. Heaven!

Why has calling someone become such a freak show?

64 Responses

  1. It’s called “progress.” Whole fucking world’s a freak show now. Here we are, entertain us.

    • That is the most apt pop culture reference I’ve come across this whole week. From now on, Tetman, you can do no wrong in my eyes.

  2. Shit, I remember when we had to use the Watts line to make a long distance call at my job at Univesal Pics…damn I’m old.

  3. I don’t know. But you just reminded me that I owe my mother a call. She doesn’t have a cellphone. I call her when I know she’ll be out so I can leave a message and feel like I’ve done my bit to hold together the relationship. I can’t imagine her with a cellphone.

    • isn’t weird how you always know when it’s your mom calling? i can feel her phone call before she starts to dial. i love creeping my daughter out when the phone rings and i say, “get that, it’s oma.” she’s only 7 and doesn’t understand she’ll be able to screen my calls too one day.

      • I think your grammar is fucked up, and I think that you consider your daughter an It. The shit stops with you, if you want it to. I seems you are blaming you’re daughter for you problems. Which is actually good for university educated psychologists, house payment due!

  4. That’s how fucking old I am. I worked those boards. I had rural communities with four digit phone numbers. I fainted one day and pulled every single cord out for the whole village of Oak Park. I sent an email from my freaking Kindle yesterday. I complained to someone that “cognitive dissonance” was word(s) of the week. I’m it.

    I never call anyone. Ever.

    • The fainting part is awesome, not because you might have hit your head or had a stroke, but because just you unplugged the whole town. I might have a strange sense of humor, but I love that. How many people showed up at the office to see what had happened? I doubt there was a customer service number.

  5. I grew up with a father who threw more than one phone into the toilet–yanking the thing out of the wall and plunging it down the loo.

    I’ve accidentally dropped more than one cell phone into the can myself.

    The phone has always been a freak show as far I can see. I prefer epistolary relationships. Pen, keyboard, nib.

  6. One balmy winter’s night in Miami Beach, when I was not more than three, I watched the full moon from my father’s arms. I’d probably never seen or noticed a full moon before then; it was not a solid object to me, but a peephole in the dark shell of the sky, the faint shadows of clouds a lacy curtain filtering the cataract of light that poured over us. I peered through, and on the other side was a switchboard operator like those I had seen in the old movies on television, taking calls from people who wanted to talk to God. In that instant I knew I had to get into the house, get on the phone, and place my call.

  7. I’m thoroughly enjoying a little overlap here. TP: It crossed my mind that I used to sip my parent’s cocktails and beer and was wondering if maybe that was going on in Miami.

    • >>was wondering if maybe that was going on in Miami.<<

      Of course it was. I wasn't imbibing though, just my fertile imagination at play. My first tipsy-time came at age ten. Okay, I'm off to bed. I've been taking up too much real estate in the comments lately.

  8. I played the lead in Bells Are Ringing at camp and loved our fake switchboard. “I’m in love, with a man, double oh, double four, double three, it’s a perfect relationship, I can’t see him, he can’t see me…”

    I miss real phones.

    • Me too. I miss real phones. And I miss real conversations. Even my stepparents text now instead of calling. This way the entire family can be “not speaking” and still (dis) function.

      I also miss hearing the scratchy rubbing sound of the dial. Oh to dial a rotary phone and wait.

      • We sold our rotary phone on ebay last year. I still regret it. It had the 312 Chicago area code still on the center shield.

      • i loved how heavy they were. and the thick coiled cord. my grandmother (who happened to start her career as a switchboard operator when she was a teenager in the 40s) had an avocado green phone that hung on the wall in her kitchen beside a giant wooden spoon and fork. you could have killed someone with the part you talk in while strangling them with the cord.

      • amyg, how violent! You got me thinking about that horrible scene in Midnight Cowboy.

  9. When I moved in with my grandparents as a child, the phone was a black bakelite brick of a thing that sat on the dining room sideboard. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to stand right there because the cord didn’t reach anywhere else. No rotary dial, just a little round circle with our phone number TYPED on it — 1074. Pick up the phone – no dial tone – but wait, a real voice. Number please. Seriously, the operator really said that. 345J, I said. Are you looking for Susan? the operator and mother of Susan asked. She’s not home, want me to ring her at Janet’s for you? It was another world.

  10. One ringy dingy, two ringy dingy…
    anyone remember?

  11. As schoolgirls in tunics and stockings and hats we used to fart in telephone boxes and run away.

  12. I have fond childhood memories of sitting in our bathroom and talking to my friends on the telephone, the curled cord pulled so tight it actually straightened itself out. One less inch and the door wouldn’t have closed. Other than the entrance to the apartment, the door to the bathroom was our only means of privacy. Of course, if you were on the other side, you’d find yourself playing Limbo just to get into the kitchen.

    Nobody calls me anymore. My kids have scared them all away. They’re like Pavlov’s dogs. Once they hear the phone ring, they start screaming like Irish banshees. I still hide in the bathroom but more out of respect for the caller.

    My mom has been dead for over 7 years and I’ve only recently stopped missing her phone calls. The other day I felt it hard. Being in my own little world, I hadn’t realized it was daylight savings. My mom would have made sure I had known. She would have picked up the phone for sure.

    • It took me years to stop thinking of calling my mother. I wonder if the heartache is kept as fresh with a text.

      • I used to call my mother every evening while I was making dinner. After she died, I started drinking more. Not because I really wanted a drink, but because I was in the kitchen alone at 6 pm, with no one to talk to (or maybe no one to listen to me?) and not enough to do with my hands.

    • The hours of sitting in the hall closet while everyone else complained about having to play limbo with the stretched out phone cord. I remember.

    • At Of course, you lost me, and lost your narrative. You stopped making sense. If I was on the other side? You get the rest. you stopped making sense. Writing is very simple, if you make it simple. Of course, I am a genius that has never been in print or has never had any interest by people who print the wracked words of people for a profit, though I want to be among the fine, yet, still, you lost me after a captivating opening. If you think I care about your real life, I am willing to exchange. In the mean-time, you seem to be a writer. But you are making new-writer mistakes like vomiting too much information in the first few paragraphs. Timing! Timing! Timing! Make me want it. I know this is a blog. Take it for what it is. Be as smart as you are.

      P.S. Maybe I got hung up on the word Limbo. Maybe I don’t know what that is. So, esplain.

  13. In my living room I have a Ma Bell rotary dial phone with a long cord that I use when I need to talk from my office, and in my kitchen I have an old wall phone with punch buttons in case I need to respond to menus. I don’t have an answering machine cuz I don’t want to call anybody back.

    I don’t have a portable phone cuz I don’t like to be accessible, and I also don’t like technology that knows where I am all the time. I don’t do “social media.” I like email. It’s quiet and you can steer it straight to your delete file if it’s somebody you’re mad at.

  14. I remember when the rotary dial switched from hard metal to softer plastic – you could dial so much faster.

    Remember the Princess phone (pre-Disney merchandising tie-ins). I always wanted one . . .

  15. When I was in my early teens, my grandmother gave me for Christmas a fancy-looking telephone fit for a mansion — white, with an oval base and gold dial plate, and the 1930s-looking handset laid across the top in an open cradle, also made of “gold” hardware.

    The best thing about this phone was that it emitted a soft mechanical sound a few seconds before the phones in the house actually rang, allowing me to pick up the phone before anyone else even knew there was a call. Just imagining the sound of that tone makes me think of my high school boyfriend, because of course his call was the one I anticipated most eagerly. I don’t imagine I’ll ever heard that sound again, but it is fixed in my mind’s ear.

  16. And those annoying/glorious party lines. Annoying when you were trying to call out or were expecting to hear from your boyfriend. Glorious when you had nothing better to do than listen in on somebody else’s conversation. I knew that Mrs. Gravitz was going to have another baby before her husband did.

  17. I believe our growing number drives us to isolation. If you are giving birth you must shove people aside for room to drop your kid. We can access money, pay bills, shop without ever seeing a face. We text, a riveting alternative to hearing a voice. It will progress. We will live inside little boxes from where we will work and manage our lives and we will never have to see the son of bitches who dispense us electricity, water, move our money. And only inside the box will be real.

  18. fear of intimacy

    • YES. I think that’s it exactly. We linger behind the distancing scrim of social media/blogs/texts, all of which create a false intimacy. Then we don’t have to have the real thing, with all of its effluvia. Look, our words trumpet, I’m right here–eating pizza, playing with my toddler, waxing poetic with a retweet from the Dalai Lama. Now go away.

      In other news, the holidays are coming. Bah fucking humbug.

  19. And how often do people just drop by? (blogs excepted, of course)

  20. I used to love the “serious” phone at my dad’s office: push button, I think, but awesome five or six plastic transparent buttons on the bottom panel, the red one being HOLD. If you had someone on hold, the line in question lit up whitish yellow and blinked, like Christmas lights.


    I really wanted to get one at home, and used to call AT&T phone stores to ask about pricing. I was about eight or nine.

  21. I agree with Tetman. Everything under the sun has become a freak show.

  22. I still only have a pay-as-you-go flip phone, because I can’t afford to pay 100 beans/month to play AngryBirds. For the duration of this summer I only bothered to add call minutes but not texts. You can imagine that it was as though I’d died.

    I used to be under the impression that the key to human survival was communication… since we’re not natural predators and really no match against a bear or a nuke. I’m kinda freaked that the latest iPhone talks back. Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy…

  23. I don’t own a cell phone and I’ve never sent a text. My friends say I’M the freak show. I say that’s $100 bucks a month in my pocket.

  24. Guess I’m really living in a parallel universe:
    a. still use my Rolodex because it doesn’t shatter like my Palm Pilot did when I dropped in on a concrete floor nor ooze LED ick like my dying cell phone bled out when it got run over by a car
    b. still have one non-electric phone (ie needs only the phone cord jack) in the house – after H. Katrina, we learned that these phones would work if the cell phone towers didn’t
    c.I don’t text people, don’t have any texting plans on the company phones. Declare me silly, but I like to hear a voice, not read badly truncated words
    d. my only real concession to the 21st century is a car phone, although I don’t even know its number and 100 minutes lasts me an entire year

    OK, gotta go – must start up the butter churn after I chop some kindling for the stove and corral the dinosaurs

  25. I hate talking on the phone. My timing sucks. I think it’s my turn to speak and end up interrupting the other person, or they interrupt me, or they can’t hear me at all, which is intensely frustrating for everyone involved.

    I also don’t like the immediacy of it. I always feel I’ve been pounced.

  26. It’s begun to feel SO intrusive. I mostly call people now to leave them voicemails so that they will answer my emails.

  27. I was sitting in a quiet cafe/bar last Winter and noticed that the girl sitting next to me was wearing a wristwatch. I’ve gotten out of the habit of wearing mine (I don’t get out of the house that much any more) and I had to move on to get to a meeting (hence the nerve-soothing pre-meeting G&T) so I asked the girl if she had the time.

    “Sure,” she said, and she picked up her phone from the bar to check. “It’s 6:15.”

    I’m guessing that her wristwatch was an ironic fashion statement that I missed.

  28. On my blog, the all-time most popular post (aside from the one with “Fuck” in the title, which attracts many porn-hunters every day) was about why I don’t own a cell phone. Yes! *gasp* It’s true. http://thegirlinthehat.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/hold-the-phone/

  29. My parents still have two corded phones.

    The one in the kitchen, which is roughly twenty-five years old, replaced the rotary phone that ejected itself from the wall one day for reasons known only to itself, though my sister and I were both teenagers, so maybe it died of exhaustion. The one in Dad’s office lurks under piles of paper and journals, and is only used when my parents need to be on the phone at the same time.

    It was a complete shock when I realized that my parents have cell phones. And that they use them.

  30. Well, Betsy, you already have 49 comments, but this post sparked a memory and a thought. When I used to work in consulting – instead of writing full time – we were voicemail fanatics in my little corner of the world. Email was gaining momentum but not yet the pervasive mode of communication. I could 337 (delete) or 338 (forward) or 339 (save) like the best or them. But the funny thing was, I preferred to actually visit people, you know, walk down the hall for a chat.

    So if using the phone has disappeared, what on earth has happened to face to face communication? I always found I could get much more done when I sat in someone’s office talking about an issue. Are we now faster but less effective?


  31. That is almost a question that I can’t make fun with, but I must. It’s because people are geniuses. I hope I’m dead before this happens, I also remember the days of pink message slips, I once lied my ass off at a temp agency to get a secretary job, years before I remembered there was such a thing as grammar, if you can imagine that, but I can imagine being charged for every breath I take, monitored and charged, pennies on the sac. The sad part of this is this is part of the reason I may not marry my girlfriend, I envision her putting me on the one lung plan to save a buck. And now folks, back to the serious business of human thinking and human purpose and what humans do and find fascinating. I was laying in bed today and having just woken up from a nap,which is when I have my best thoughts, and which usually have nothing to do with my trying to think, it hit me that everything we do, just about, I’m still holding out hope, makes no fucking sense, what so ever (this actually creates a sense of peace in me, but I must go on.) Maybe I’m getting old. I’ve lost interest in just about anything people would call ambition. Now, the funny thing is is that I could self-diagnose as depressive, but That does not explain my existence. If someone were wholeheartedly willing to declare me as such, do they know why there is anything at all? Oh gee-wiz, let me guess, happiness and children that are happy. I get that but that only covers a small fraction of life. That does not explain or even point to the mystery, forgive my language. Why has communication lost the snake and the simplicity of hands-on communication? Because we are fucking geniuses. Maybe I am a little depressed. I’ll get over it, believe you me.

  32. The email thing. The unspoken but sometimes acknowledged and practiced rule is to put the brakes on after three (you know, the Holy Trinity) “reply alls”, and call, or more radically, stand in the doorway of the person most likely to put a stop to it all. Face to face, eye to eye,
    mano a mano. Or womano a womano.

    I don’t know anything about that snake stuff.

  33. The telephone scares me. There. I said it. I am afraid of it.

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