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Dialing up the past on my landline

It’s hardly ever someone I know or want to talk to, but old habits die hard.

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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We’ve had the same landline for almost 40 years, since before anyone called it a “landline,” and it’s hard to give it up. Our phone number would be floating out there in space somewhere, whimpering like a dog that got left behind. And we have a cool number. It’s got two zeros in it, just like my childhood phone number, only without the stigma. Nobody liked to dial zeros back in the 1950s, when we all had rotary phones. It took too much work, and if you were in a hurry your finger might slip out of the little hole before you got it all the way around, and then you’d have to start over. But by the time we got the landline, all you had to do was push a button.

Still, this phone is annoying. There’s hardly ever anybody on the other end of it anymore that I want to talk to. Instead it’s someone telling me there’s nothing wrong with my credit card. Or someone who wants to know how old my roof is, or if I’d like to take a short survey. It’s nobody I know.

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One of the reasons people say you should keep the landline is that the connection is better, and you might want it for certain conversations. Which just goes to show how much we’ve forgotten about what a real phone – one with a cord – should sound like.

They sounded wonderful. When direct long-distance dialing first became available, my mom would call her brother in North Dakota, and they’d spend an exhilarating minute telling each other they sounded as if they were in the next room. Then they’d hang up. And it was true. People did sound as though they were in the next room.

That’s because their voices didn’t have to guess where they were going. They got to travel inside honest-to-goodness enclosed wires the whole way, completely out of the weather, and they’d come out all creamy on the receiving end. Nowadays your voice has to find its way through the air and bump into mosquitoes and hurricanes and such, and by the time it gets to your friend’s phone it sounds as though it’s coming from the bottom of a box of crackers. 

But it’s considered an improvement because we don’t have to be tethered to a wall, even though that wouldn’t be the worst idea for a lot of us.

Anyway, back then, if you heard a little crackle on your phone, you’d call up The Phone Company and they’d send out some guy with his name stitched on his shirt to polish it up for you free of charge. The wires were all tucked away inside the house through one neatly caulked hole in the siding. Now the landline brings in crunchy noises, the sound of squirrels chewing, and a background layer of generalized infrastructural tinnitus. You don’t report any of it as long as you can still make out the conversation, because it will cost you a hundred bucks to have some repairman poke a toe inside your house. If you can keep him outside, he’ll haul out a bunch of new wire and staple it in careless loops to the side of your house like bunting. But it does sound marginally better than the cellphone, because there’s no delay.

These days, when my landline rings, it’s usually a complete stranger calling to ask me how I am today, so I try to just let it ring. But it’s hard. I spent formative decades racing to answer the phone because otherwise I’d have no idea who was on the other end. I still feel the urge to jump up and answer at the cellular level.

So it’s probably no use. I’ll have to keep the phone. It’s securely fastened to my past, and I don’t want to lose one more thing.