A Love Letter To The Old Fashioned Phone
by Amy Schreibman Walter
“The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance all of its own.” Virginia Woolf
Last week, I went to the country for a night with a good friend. While she was in the bathroom enjoying the high quality shower, I stretched out on the king sized bed, feeling grateful for this little adventure away from the big city. Birds chirped outside, and I closed my eyes, listening. What I couldn’t hear was my phone — no text message alerts, no ringing. We were hours from the city, and there was no cellphone signal where we were. This absence of signal was something of a gift for me, an ever- connected city woman.
I felt myself begin to disconnect and relax. But I did have to make just one important call before I could really let myself unwind. I looked over at the bedside table at the, at first glance, unremarkable beige landline touch button telephone that was plugged into the wall. Next to it sat my friend’s cellphone.
I was struck by the contrast in appearance between the two phones. The landline phone quickly caught my attention, the way it seemed to loom over the iPhone with its handsome size and stature. Though somewhat commanding in its presence, it struck me as elegant, too: practical yet seductive, with its curving earpiece, little buttons waiting to be pressed, and many round parts: Masculine, yet undeniably feminine.
The iPhone seemed, in contrast, to be flat, almost two dimensional, utilitarian — ugly, even. This might be a matter of nostalgia clouded perspective: if I were to look closely at an iPhone for the first time after not having seen one for a long time, maybe I’d see that as beautiful, too. But in this moment, the iPhone seemed small and a lot less romantic, sitting next to a legend as large as the landline, as it was.
My friend emerged from the bathroom and asked what I was doing; I was able to tell her with conviction that I had, in the time since she’d left the room, fallen head over heels for the phone on the bedside table. I’d forgotten, until this encounter, the delightful dance of fingers on an old fashioned telephone: the pressing of the buttons just hard enough for something to happen, the feeling of an actual receiver atop my earlobe, the twirling of the cord around my fingers as I spoke into the receiver. While my friend had been showering, I’d enjoyed chatting with a relative on this beautiful device.
After my conversation, when I hung up the phone, I actually had to hang it up. I didn’t press a red button on a screen to end the call; I replaced the receiver on its cradle, and I heard that familiar clunk signaling the end of the call, that reassuring, heavy clunk.
And then something wonderful happened — the phone rang; a kind of ring that shakes the whole room. It was my relative, calling me back; she’d forgotten to say something. The phone made a shrill, slightly jarring sound; one that wasn’t particularly palatable. But the sound comforted me by its very nature -of being a ring — not a song, jingle, or electronic tune. This ring offered up a reminder of all the rings that had come before.
I recently learned that the iPhone’s most popular ring tone is the classic bell sound. I think there’s a reason; we want our phones to sound like the phones we’ve known and loved for so long. A sound that at once connects us with our pasts and brings us to our future.
I have a landline at home, and I use it often: It’s a decidedly unsexy black, cordless hand piece that allows me the same pleasures of multi-tasking and roaming that my cellphone does. But this kind of touch dial, stationary phone is different. With this particular telephone, I had to be, more or less, rooted to the spot to make a call, and in that place of rootedness, I found myself absentmindedly twirling the cord around my fingers. The memories started then.
Suddenly I was fifteen again, talking to my first boyfriend in the hallway of our family home, legs crossed, cord tangled up between my fingers, giddy with excitement. And then I was 21, a counselor in a wooden chair in the office of summer camp, talking long distance to my mother abroad, telling her about falling in love for the first time.
I remembered all of a sudden that my great Aunt Ida had a telephone that looked like something from The Great Gatsby. This phone was a truly sexy object. It was made of some kind of plastic, because she lived in downtown Manhattan, not Gatsbyland, but it was made to look like marble. The receiver was so curved it was almost rubenesque. You had to put your fingertip inside the little circles to dial the numbers; you really felt what you were doing.
No matter that the cord was short and you had to actually sit at the telephone table to make a call, this phone was worth every kind of inconvenience. This was a phone, and it offered everyone who used it the chance to relive a time when telephone tables were de rigeur, darling.
It’s easy to have a kind of rose-colored nostalgia for the older versions of the practical objects we use every day. I could argue that the more sensory experiences associated with household objects of the past have been largely forsaken for the speed, convenience and ease of use of modern day gadgets, and I could also argue that this isn’t a bad thing. Our lives are undoubtedly much improved by the convenience of the gadgets that serve us.
Whether we are talking about a telephone versus a cellphone, a record player versus an Alexa Echo, voice recognition software versus typing on a typewriter, it’s easy to reminisce about ‘the way things were’ — and perhaps this is partly what the whole ‘hipster’ movement is all about. But, here’s the thing — I like 2017; I don’t wish for it to be 1980 again. I don’t miss crackly lines, interference or answering machines that were boxes sitting on the mantel. Well, okay, maybe I do, just a little bit.
I kind of adore my iPhone, for all the quick pleasures and delights that it brings. And I like my Alexa and I don’t long for scratching needles on the record player. Sometimes, though, it’s a beautiful thing to allow yourself the experience — enjoying, for a change, something that used to be commonplace — talking on a landline, for example, or putting a record on, or typing a letter. It’s an act of object appreciation, for sure, but it’s maybe more than that, too — it’s our past, meeting us right here, in our Judy Jetson iPhone future.
Since my overnight trip to the country, I’ve been thinking about how lovely the receiver of that telephone felt held up to my ear, about how good it felt to talk on a real phone; a phone that is, after all, only a phone — not a gateway to the world wide web, not an instant messaging device, not a camera, not a video.
When a phone is only a phone, does the experience of making a call feel different? I think it does. I remember when payphones were everywhere, and the panic of running out of coins before you’d said what you needed to say, the wait for the phone box, the need to find just the right coins, the need to find a phone box. I miss payphones, too, not for their grit, graffiti and urine soaked smell but because it felt good to know they were there, just in case. I think that’s how I feel about my landline; it’s good just to know it’s there.
Perhaps I’ll take this summer romance a step further and make a more permanent commitment…lately, I’ve been looking at retro phones on Ebay, pink and turquoise ones, to remind me of my Florida childhood. When making such an unnecessary purchase, why not, after all, be a little frivolous? Turquoise, or hot pink; they’re happy colors to me; nostalgia filled hues. And, really, what single woman doesn’t harbor a fantasy about lounging around in her silk bathrobe and dialing, one digit at a time, from the gorgeously curvaceous telephone by her bed? Or maybe that’s just me…