What a Weird, Wired World It Was

Remember when telephones were for talking on?

By Strawberry Saroyan

There used to be a cord. Bulky. Corkscrew-shaped. Tied to the machine that was tied to the wall. There were holes in the receiver, wires inside—ones you could see. People made calls before the iPhone, whose 10th anniversary is being celebrated this summer. “Hello?” “Hello.”

There were roads with poles along them that carried these voices via wires. Ring, ring. The sound was of a machine, not a machine imitating another machine. Phones were physical, big, in different colors and styles. But all were simple, built with pieces human eyes could surmise. You held them like objects with weight.

People spilled their guts on them, but they held back too. “What?” “Never mind.” People talked it out, turned it over on the phone. They could cry and it was real, not represented in text or icons. There were answering machines after a while. “Please leave a message.” “Hi. Call me back.” But still all sound, no face time via FaceTime, no WhatsApp or emojis.

People built their careers, entire lives, via these phone calls. Superagent Sue Mengers in a caftan on a couch in Hollywood purring like a cat. Ambitious young things that were out of the loop geographically made bucks off their luck—their voices, their sonic ability.

Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” had entered the lexicon by then, but the phone was different because it carried our messages. It was personal. I remember as a child listening to late-night calls my father had with my grandmother. I could only hear his side, of course, but she was telling tales that became famous in our family, myths in our minds. I believe they were so resonant because they were honed via that solitary line of communication.

I remember as a teen talking to girls and first boyfriends. “He likes you.” “Did you hear?” “Oh my god.” This was before acronyms and liquid crystal displays, ambient light sensors and touch-screens. There was only sound. You could say “no” and it was a certain kind of no; a “yes” was a certain kind of a yes, too. Listeners understood because they’d, we’d, heard it.

It’s not all bad these days. I like the insta-gratification of apps and my Gmail, the ease with which I can make a firework burst—complete with pop-pop-popping sounds—via text message on my iPhone 6s. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone he called it “revolutionary,” not a gadget but a way of life. It does affect, enable, smooth out the hard lines of what used to be called reality—communication and seeing one another, connecting and knowing—even with things like Snapchat Stories or the fast-track feminist dating app Bumble.

Still, I can’t help wanting to mourn, or at least mark, the end of the phone call as I knew it. The days of Dial-a-Poem and party line Dial-a-Spaz, both early versions of social media. The era when one’s voice was an isolated incident, as it were, an isolated instrument for sure. When the phone call was a tunnel to hearts, minds, souls even. When it was just us with our voices, and a ringing.


The Telephone I Remember 

Back when there was only one Telephone Company
AKA Ma Bell?

By Sandy Estabrook


  • AT&T Long Lines,  long-distance calling services
  • Western Electric Company, Bell's equipment manufacturing arm
  • Bell Labs,  research and development for AT&T
  • Bell operating companies, providing local exchange telephone services.

  • It was voice communication over copper wires. They ran on telephone poles to a brick building with only one window in town. You could hear the relays inside clicking away as this was the day of dial phones. I remember times when we lost our power but the phone always worked. You could call a friend and ask “do you have power?”

    My hobby was electronics. This was during the time of vacuum tubes.  Transistors were just arriving on the scene. I loved tinkering with old radios to the point of getting a ham license W2EXS now expired.  The Transistor of choice was Raytheon’s CK722 at $2.95. Today a 1-gig memory card (a billion transistors) costs about the same!!

    I digress, back to telephones. At one point my father has a second phone installed in our home for business. I figured out that one could easily connect both our home line and my dads business line together. Call some one on each line throw a switch connecting them together and my first three way phone call. This was about 1955. Then I learned to connect two disinterested parties and listen in to some very humorous conversation . “You called me”, “No, you called me” etc.

    It was time to get creative. So I call a Pizza parlor to order takeout. Told the clerk to hold on a second while my mother got on the phone. While the pizza man waited, I dialed the police and the second he picked up, I threw the switch. “Sixth precinct, sergeant Mahoney”. “This is Pizza Pete”. The cop “Yes, What can I do for you”. “I am waiting for and order”. "Nobody here placed an order". "They did, and told me to hold on"..... And so it went. We were rolling in laughter. By then I had my buddies over and made a party of these event.

    Our only problem was dreaming up humorous combinations, We did St. Aloysius  nuns house with the priests house and of corse with Temple Bethel. American Airlines x2 and as it turned out two agents in the same office started talking to each other. Ex-boy friends and girlfriends were always good.

    Jumping forward to the present and where we spend our summers, we still have copper and even the brick building in town. I use it for DSL only as we use Verizon “Wireless Home Phone” which we bring back and forth ($20 a month.) It just plugs into our cordless phone network. As part of our DSL service we have been given a phone number but its not in use. Every so often I’m tempted to hook it up with an old princess phone I bought at a flee market for $5 - maybe next  time when the power goes off.

    And what if the internet goes off? We'll surely miss the old copper wire land line.