Hello? Why I Keep My House Phone in the Cellphone Age

In the past year or so, many people have opted to discontinue their house phones. Their houses object, of course. As they correctly point out, their phones worked during hurricanes, when cellphones didn’t. Their phones are a fashion statement, coming in different colors to match your décor. They identify you as a real person, with your name in the phone book along with Spielberg, Seinfeld and Brinkley. Remember how good you felt when your father called from Moscow the day Yeltsin declared the Soviet Union dead, and in the background the people were in the streets, cheering?

If you hadn’t been home, the house phone would have taken the message that he called. You could still play it back. Remember answering machines and their messages? You answered them one at a time. PLAY, STOP, DELETE or SAVE. Sometimes you could go to Radio Shack and get a recording of a famous person answering to say you weren’t there. You could press REWIND and the machine’s tape would go gibble, gibble, gibble. Answering machines were fun.

But house phones, although we didn’t know it at the time, dominated our lives like tyrants. We did their bidding. If you were out in the backyard because your dog slipped and fell in the pool and was swimming around and you were coming to rescue him and the phone rang inside, you’d run into the house to see who it was, telling your dog you’d be back in just a minute and so hang in there and keep dogpaddling around. If you were in the shower and heard the phone ring in the bedroom, you’d leap out, wrap a towel around you and run, dripping wet, into the bedroom to get it.

If you were a teenage girl, you’d sit next to your princess phone, hoping that that boy you gave your phone number to would call. If you were a teenage boy, you’d imagine her phone ringing in her bedroom and her choosing not to answer because she knew it was you. You could be in the most intimate situation and a bedside phone would ring and bring the proceedings to a halt, whatever they might have been.

“Hello?”

A house phone, even when quiet, just by your knowing it was there, would bring you stress. You’d never know when it would beckon.

We just took it for granted that this was the way the world was. We didn’t know there would be such things as cellphones some day. I remember a famous movie, I think it was Rear Window, where the woman had this phone number to call when the murderer got close to her bedroom door. She could dial it and it would ring in an apartment across the way, where, watching her through the two windows facing out to one another across the courtyard, a good guy would answer, see what was going on and rush over to rescue her.

So the murderer came. The woman dialed the number. And the camera now focused on the phone in the other apartment, where it just rang and rang and rang. Where was he? Where was he? I think he was getting coffee or something. So the woman died.

Personally, at the time, I treated my ongoing anxiety, this vague fear I had, by going to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist and I tried to figure out what was causing my anxiety, but we could not puzzle it out. Then, at the end of our final session, just as he thought he had a handle on it and could tell me what it was, his phone rang—he apologized, his secretary was out sick—and he had to take the call. After that, he said he couldn’t remember what it was.

I was not alone seeking the help of a psychiatrist at that time. Psychiatry was a big booming business in those days. Especially telephone-related anxiety. I address this to older readers. You all know what I am talking about. Telephones ruled our lives.

I would like to be able to say that I have gotten rid of my house phone, that I am free at last, free at last. But that is not what happened.

I’ve decided to hang onto my house phone. I use it to receive faxes. It rings four times, then defaults. A fax spits out. Then, sometimes, for no particular reason, I might pick it up just before the fourth ring for a whole other reason.

I hear a voice. I am in punishment mode.

“Hello, I am calling from your credit card company. Your credit is just fine now, but because you are such a longstanding and loyal user, I am able to offer you a special reduced interest rate at this time. To accept this offer, just press 1 on your phone and a representative will take down your information.”

I press 1.

“Hi, this is Irene. Who am I speaking to?”

“THIS TELEPHONE IS ON THE NATIONAL DO NOT CALL LIST AND IF YOU CALL AGAIN I WILL FILE A COMPLAINT WITH THEM AND HAVE YOU SHUT DOWN. I HAVE YOUR NUMBER.”

And I hang up.

“Hello, this is Carl with the Ford Motor Company. I notice that the extended warranty on your Ford Explorer has just expired. Usually, we don’t offer any further extended warranties, but in your case, because you have been such a good customer, we are able to extend your warranty for another three years at very low cost if you wish. Bumper to bumper coverage.”

“You’re with Ford?”

“Yes. We represent Ford.”

“So you’re not with Ford.”

“We have arrangements with Ford and with every major car company—Chrysler, Toyota, General Motors…”

“THIS TELEPHONE IS ON THE NATIONAL DO NOT CALL LIST AND IF YOU CALL AGAIN I WILL FILE A COMPLAINT WITH THEM AND HAVE YOU SHUT DOWN. I HAVE YOUR NUMBER.”

I am now in charge. The shoe is on the other foot. The cows are now in the barn. And these telephone solicitors don’t stand a chance against the U.S. Government as, one by one, I take them to the mat.

“Have a nice day,” I shout. Usually after I’ve hung up.

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