Things My Kids Will Never Experience (Part One)
My parents had a rotary phone until I was nineteen. For you kids who never experienced one, here’s how it worked: forget buttons. The only buttons on a rotary phone were the line cutoffs, which were generally two little plastic pegs about the size of pencil erasors that stuck up through two holes in the center of the headset cradle. When you hung the headset on its cradle, it pushed the pegs down and they operated a secret gizmo that broke the connection. Thus the term “hung up”, as in, “that mean, insensitive girl whose phone number I got off the bathroom wall hung up on me!” So named because the act of hanging up the headset ended the call. Had telephone evolution skipped the rotary-dial/manual-cutoff days and jumped straight to cell phones, the term for ending a call would be something different, like “He powered-off on me!” or “That jerk gave me the click!” Which sounds vaguely dirty and sexual, so maybe it wouldn’t have been that one, but you get the point.
Anyway, no buttons on a rotary phone. Instead, you called someone by sticking your index finger (or if you were cool and talented, any other finger, or a pen or pencil, etc.) into one of nine holes ringed around the circumference of a plastic dial. Each hole had a number- one through nine, then zero- imprinted on the phone beneath the dial. Using your finger (or the implement of your choice if you were cool and talented) inside the little hole, you turned the dial clockwise with a tiny clockwork ratcheting sound as something in the mechanism of the phone measured the length of the turn. When your finger (or cool implement) met the little metal hook that stopped the turn, you let go and the released dial would ratchet quickly and more noisily back to its starting point. You did this for each digit in the phone number you were dialling (another anachronistic term, “dialling”; since no phones actually have dials anymore, it would be more accurate to say that one punched up a number or buttoned a number).
Then you held the headset, which was a heavy plastic thing shaped like a bent dumbbell with a set of super-mod salt and pepper shakers molded onto the ends, to your ear and waited for the call to connect. The headset was always attached to the phone by a spiral plastic cord. Cords came in a variety of lengths, from not-quite-long-enough-to-reach-the-fridge to just-short-enough-to-keep-you-from-sitting-on-the-floor. The spiral of the cord was designed to allow it a degree of stretch, but the result was inevitably a strange snarled tangle that made weird alien shapes which had a perverse life of their own. For instance:
Imagine you were on a rotary phone with the need to jot down an address. The pen and paper were always on the other side of the kitchen or office, so you clutched the headset between your shoulder and ear and, igor-like, lurched across the room, stretching the spiral cord as far as you’d think it could reach, pulling it so painfully taut that it looked like a vibrating tightrope connecting your ear to the wall. You’d crane your arm as far as you could until you’d barely, barely, get the pad of one finger on the paper and hook it to you. Success! It never occured to you, in that moment, to take the paper and pen back to the phone base. Instead, you’d stand there at the furthest desperate length of the cord, pen and paper in hand, and say something like, “OK, I’m ready, what’s the address again?” And that’s when the little tangle in the phone cord would suddenly spring loose, adding another six inches to its length, and making the headset pop smartly off your shoulder.
Always, always, this resulted in a desperate and deceptively slow comic ballet as you bobbled the headset in your hands, trying not to drop the paper or the pen, getting your wrists tangled in the cord, yelling for the person on the phone to hold on, hold on, I dropped the phone, ah crap, and of course, inevitably dropping the phone on the floor.
The only good news was that you could retrieve it without bending over, since the cord was still tangled around your wrist; you simply reeled it back in, shaking your head and cursing under your breath.
Mothers were expert at rotary telephone ergonomics. My Mom could cook an entire meal in the kitchen with the phone clutched between her ear and shoulder. It was like watching some retro robot that had to be plugged in to operate. Dads had no patience for it. Watching Dad on the phone was a study in verbal economics. A typical phone call would go like this:
Mom: Hello? Oh hi. Hold on. (yelling) Hon! It’s Wally!
Dad: The green one.
Mom (twenty seconds later): What did he want?
Dad (from the living room): Who?