Today, you can “dial” a telephone by pushing buttons. And most of us have cellphones, making it easy to get in touch with someone faster than you can say “android.” In the old days, you had a stationary phone with a round dial on it. You could only move it as far as the cord would reach. To dial a number, you had to put your finger into a series of holes in the dial and rotate it. If you misdialed one digit, you could end up calling some stranger who would be anywhere from mildly annoyed to angry to hear from you, depending on what he/she was doing when your call came in. The worst time to accidentally dial a stranger was when he/she was in the shower and expecting an urgent call. Many of us learned our first four-letter words after dialing the wrong number.
There were no such things as Call Waiting, Voicemail, or Caller ID. There was no way of knowing who was calling until you picked up the phone, which would keep on ringing as long as the person who was calling you had his/her receiver off the hook. If you called someone who was on the phone, you’d get a “busy signal” until the person hung up the receiver. You couldn’t leave a message. If you REALLY had to get through, you had to dial “0” to call an operator and ask her to break in and interrupt the call. My father would sometimes do this when my sister was on one of her marathon phone conversations with one of her friends. My sister wasn’t happy about this, but Dad was livid, and she had no choice.
Imagine this. You pick up the receiver of your phone, ready to dial the number of someone who is anxiously waiting for your call. This is the most important call you have made in your entire life. Instead of a dial tone, you hear two people talking. Congratulations. You have a party line, and your party line partner is on the phone. Many people chose party lines because it was cheaper to share a phone line than to have one exclusively for you alone. Many people came to regret this.
You have two choices: (1) hang up, wait a few minutes, and try again; and (2) break into the conversation and beg/demand that they hang up and let you have the line, telling them that you need to make a life-or-death call that could change your life as you know it. I will leave you to imagine the potential confrontation that could occur should you choose option 2.
We didn’t have rollerblades. We had rollerskates. Those of us who did not have wealthy parents had clamp-style skates that required a key to attach them to our shoes. Kids whose parents could afford it might have shoe-style skates, but they were rare in our neighborhood. I only knew one kid who had a pair of those. The same kid had playground-level swings in her yard, so you can imagine how we were both envious of her and eager to hang around with her.
Back to rollerskates. Those old clamp-style skates could be hard on shoes. Besides, they were not always good at negotiating things like cracks in a sidewalk or potholes on a back street. Many a skinned knee could be traced back to a pair of skates. That was okay with us. Skinned arms and legs were de rigeur with us. People expected us to get these, being kids and all. Our parents would never think of suing the rollerskate company or – heaven forbid – the city because their clumsy kids decided it would be fun to skate over a pothole. They would have considered it somehow un-American.
My generation remembers mimeograph machines for one reason: you could get mildly high from sniffing the ink in them. We also remember how messy they were when you loaded them with ink, how you could end up with it all over your hands and your clothes if you weren’t careful. The quality of the copies could best be described as sloppy.
There was general rejoicing when photocopiers replaced mimeograph machines. We owe the Xerox Company thanks for being a great boon to humanity.