October 9th, 2016

So, now I have this new car that asks me questions, but in order to answer, I’ve first got to invest in a smartphone. That’s right. I don’t own a smartphone. Evidently I’m the only person on earth who isn’t packing. Why? Because whenever I hit the road, the last thing I want is to stay in constant contact with those I left behind. And whenever I bump into someone new—which happens all too often nowadays since hardly anyone is looking where they’re going—I like to strike up a face-to-face conversation with said person. I just hate it when whomever I’m chatting with puts me on hold in order to take an incoming call. Is that a vibrating smartphone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

I’m also the last person on earth who still has a landline. Why? Because I just love older telephones! At present, there are four in the house, one in my office and another in the garage. Two are genuine Western Electric phones, proudly made in the USA by the same company that manufactured crank phones in olden days. I have one of those as well. It’s a beautiful piece of dovetailed oak cabinetry, containing a DC generator capable of producing sufficient voltage to electrocute an elephant. Beneath the generator is a space originally intended for storage batteries, where I keep a pair of eyeglasses that belonged to my grandmother and a pair of baby shoes once worn by my mother.


Mom used to tell me how, when she was a young girl, she would secretly listen in on other people’s conversations—this thanks to a network known as a party line. That was rude; however, nowadays it’s considered bad manners NOT to share one’s conversations with everyone else in the restaurant, movie theater, shopping aisle or checkout lane. I mean, what on earth could possibly be of greater interest to everyone around than whatever drivel you and your little friends are yakking about?


Here’s another artifact I came upon the other day while sifting through a box filled with my late father’s things. It’s an address book featuring a telephone dial! What’s a telephone dial, you ask? Well, it’s an innovation that put thousands of switchboard operators out of work. When I was young, if you wanted to ask a girl out on a date, you had to first look up her number in what was called a telephone directory and then dial it. I almost never completed the process before losing my nerve and hanging up. For one thing, our only telephone was situated in the hallway just off the living room. Being turned down is painful; public humiliation is even worse.

By and by, dial phones gave way to touchtone phones. Ma Bell charged extra for touchtone service; however you could get it for free simply by removing the phone’s cover and reversing the green and red wires. It’s true! And for this, the telephone company was adding an extra charge to your monthly bill, along with a federal surtax to fund the Spanish-American War. Moreover, you didn’t OWN your phone; you were just renting it from the phone company. For what my parents paid over the years to rent just one telephone, they could have bought a thousand telephones!

Following the breakup of Ma Bell, customers were obliged to buy their own telephones. Because I had become something of a wiring wizard by then, elderly widows would ask me to install their new, cheaply-made Conair wall phones. In payment, I would confiscate their beautifully-made, avocado-colored Western Electric wall phones. And now—wouldn’t you know it?—retro-styled, avocado-colored wall phones have come back into style. Too bad they are just cheap imitations of the real thing.

It has occurred to me that instead of buying a smartphone I could install Hazel Cutler’s avocado-colored wall phone in my new Subaru Crosstrek. I think a landline car phone would be nice, although of course it would also be quite costly, what with the rising cost of copper wire. Especially on long trips.

-Richard Menzies