After 40 years of cellphones, a love letter to land lines

April 3, 2013

Sometimes, when I am home alone, the red phone rings downstairs. It’s a rotary phone from eBay. Candy-apple red. Made by International Telephone & Telegraph. I bid $63.13 for it two years ago because we needed a land line for our alarm system, and so why not get an old rotary phone, because how cool are we, with our disposable income and throwback tastes? The phone’s bell is deadened by decades of wear, so the ringing sounds muffled and far away, like it’s coming from my late-’80s childhood. I am thinking about the red phone today as the world jibber-jabbers about the 40th anniversary of the first cellphone call.

(Photo by Billy Abbott via Creative Commons)
(Photo by Billy Abbott via Flickr)

On April 3, 1973, on the streets of New York, Motorola vice president Martin Cooper placed a call to his Bell Labs counterpart Joel Engel on a 1.75-lb Motorola DynaTAC, according to a BBC interview with Cooper, and said “Joel, I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.” Then Cooper ascended to the east penthouse of the New York Hilton Hotel to demonstrate the technology for reporters, according to a New York Times story printed the following day. He first dialed a wrong number, apologized, and then dialed a telephone in the penthouse. Reporters then gave it a shot. “Your voice sounds a little tinny,” reported a reporter’s wife, connected in the ether through the top end of the FM frequency.

We all know what’s happened since. Bloomberg BusinessWeek lays it all out: Commercial cell service started in 1983 with $3,995 phones, flip phones arrived in 1989, Zack Morris brought the cellphone to school in the early ’90s, BlackBerry addictions began in 2002, iPhone cults in 2007, and in 2013 each of us has an elegant, vibrating phantom under our butts that can connect us instantly to any person via voice, text or image.

And yet some of us buy a rotary phone for $63.13. To be reactionary? To cling to vintage? To live out some kind of “Pillow Talk” fantasy wherein life is conducted on a party line and Rock Hudson is just upstairs and we consider putting our telephone exchanges on our business cards?

You can reach me at FEderal 4-4244, bunny.

Dialing a rotary phone is tactile and rhythmic and ridiculous. In the late ’80s I loved dialing my best friend’s phone number because it ended with “2328.” Three short flicks of the finger followed by a yank all the way to the 8, then the clickaclickaclickaclick as the rotary dial spun back. The noise! Smartphone ease cannot totally replace mechanized satisfaction. The curly-cue cord itself was indispensable; how else could one communicate anxiety over an important grade-school social matter if not by twirling one’s fingers into a knotted mess? Am I alone in suffering from this type of nostalgia? (Can you hear me now?)

If the cellphone’s legacy is convenience and mobility, maybe the legacy of the land line is punctuality and commitment. If I made plans with my best friend via the land line, then we would show up at the appointed place at the appointed time because we had to. It was intentional living. Cellphones, and the triumph of the text message, have long since turned us into a civilization of flakes. “Be there in 5.” “Have to cancel.” “I’m lazy & your time isn’t as valuable as mine.” It all began 40 years ago today: our hand-held acceleration toward and away from each other.

So, the red phone sometimes rings when I’m home alone. Who’s on the other end? Clipboard activists, college alumni coordinators, credit-card vultures. We give out the land-line number to people we don’t really want to hear from in 2013. And they call. And the red phone makes its soft, faint ring from another era. Actually, in an otherwise empty home in which I’m silently thumbing my iPhone screen, the sound is kind of creepy.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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