Thursday, December 31, 2009

Charge It:

As the world's technology changes, it's fun to make jokes about what people used to take for granted, that we no longer remember. I loved that scene in a Superman movie where Clark Kent needs a phone booth to change in, but all he can find is an open public phone on its stand in the sidewalk; no booth. Jules Feiffer drew a great cartoon almost fifty years ago about his schlub character, Bernard Mergendeiler, wanting to rent a phone booth to live in so that his friends would know he was available. Booths? Public phones? Every old hotel has a wall full of peculiar-looking bays near the bathrooms, where the pay phones used to be.

There's something else you may not remember – or know of – from the old telephone days. Let me tell you a story:

In the early 1960's my wife and I lived in what had been intended as temporary housing for returning WW II veterans: ridiculously flimsy little Graduate Student homes at Princeton University. In late 1965, I think, we got new neighbors, Bob and Vicky. They were not just 1960's people. They were offbeat 1960's people. She was slim and very pretty. He was tall with a big shock of hair and a rough-and-ready, capable-guy persona.

The first thing they did was to paint the gypsum-board walls of their apartment, a flat light color. The last bit of painting, which I'm sure fascinated all their visitors who saw the result, was different. Vicky stood naked against the living room wall, arms and legs spread, and Bob painted an explicit silhouette of her entire body. The silhouette wasn't very close to the front door, leaving room for the full-size blacksmith's anvil that moved in with their spare, artsy possessions.

We shared a single building with them, separated by a thin wall. We heard everything that went on in each other's apartments, and I mean everything, which means that one night, when Bob yelled at a peeping Tom, he woke us up.

That winter, Bob and Vicky went on vacation around December 14. Thank God they left a window open so that their cat could get in and out.

About a week later, their phone began to ring. They rarely got phone calls, so these calls were noteworthy. They came about every three hours, and the caller tried about twenty rings before giving up, every time. The calls came morning, afternoon and middlenight. And they were LOUD. In those days, we all had clunky, massive AT&T phones that typically kept working for eighty years. They had real bells in them, not electronic imitations of bells. Those night calls woke us up.

After a few nights, I'd had it. The phone rang, yet again. I threw on coat and slippers, ran outside, crawled through their window in the dark, and answered their phone.

I found myself talking to an AT&T operator. She informed me that I -- Bob, that is -- had made an “Other Number Call" on a certain date. The call would cost $1.75. Would I accept the charge? I said that I did. There were no more annoying calls. AT&T operators had been calling for DAYS to get this charge cleared up. Now let me explain.

In the old days, if you were away from home, you could make a call and charge it to your home phone number. (That's the “Land Line number” for you young persons.) You gave your name and number – some people used to lie about this – and then AT&T enabled you to make the call. But AT&T did not trust you 100 percent. They would subsequently call you at home and get you to agree to be billed for the “Other number” call. When you were home.

Bob and Vicky returned in early January. I had bought us quite a bit of peaceful silence by then.

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