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The click of the rotary dial, the blinking red hold button, the cord that could be stretched and then painstakingly detangled -- oh, the magic of a technology that had allowed us, for the first time, to whisper into the ear of someone on the other side of the world.
Sure, the device had its flaws (long distance charges, busy signals, necks strained from cradling receivers), but it was an instrument that lent itself to a slew of rituals that today seem quaint, from the college student pulling the receiver into the hallway for privacy to the frantic lover searching for pay-phone change a la Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." And what would sitcom writers have done if it weren't for answering machine tapes and all the inevitably embarrassing messages they recorded?
But answering machines have become almost as archaic as answering services, and voice mail will be next to go, thanks to services such as SimulScribe, which can convert voice messages into e-mails. Talking on a land line at all is becoming increasingly rare, especially to a generation that crowned its first national texting champion last April. (A 13-year-old won after typing a 151-character phrase in 42 seconds.) Many teens report that they can't recall when they last used their home phone, let alone memorized a number -- an art that, much like dialing with fingers other than the thumb, is all but forgotten.
Pay phones, on the way out for years, are heading toward extinction. Last December, AT&T announced that it will completely exit the industry by the end of this year. All in all, there are less than half as many coin-chuggers nationwide as there were in 2000, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And even rarer are phone booths. In all of the Washington area, there is only one left.
Let's just hope Superman knows where it is.
Short Basketball Shorts
b. 1936 -- d. 2003
The practice of playing games in retro uniforms is common in basketball now; it gives teams another jersey to sell at the concession stands. But last December, in a game against the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers took it one step further -- they wore throwback shorts. As in short shorts. For anyone who has mourned the days when a player's full legs were as conspicuous as his tats, it was a moment of glory.
A brief one. The Lakers immediately fell behind. Despite a halftime change to the usual baggy, floor-scraping uniforms, the players were so shellshocked from the sight of their upper thighs that they lost.
"I don't know what it feels like to wear a thong," said Kobe Bryant after the game. "But I imagine it feels something like what we had on in the first half. I felt violated. I felt naked."
How times have changed. Since Michael Jordan first showed up in the NBA with an extra couple of inches on his shorts, basketball bottoms have been steadily creeping lower -- and the look quickly was adopted by players nationwide. The last holdout was Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, who remained loyal to the short-short look. When he retired in 2003, so did the era of visible knees.
Doing Nothing at the Office
b. 1853 -- d. mid-1990s
The 20th century's best minds might have brought us many wonders fantastic (Decaf soy lattes! Shoulder-fired missiles! Plastic!), but what is truly stunning is the number of office hours Americans clocked during those same years doing . . . nothing much. Taking a cigarette break could sometimes nudge the minute hand a little. The water cooler was also created for this purpose. And paper clips. But in those many empty moments between tasks, much time was spent staring into space.