• Carmen Milligan

My life with the telephone

I am watching John Mulaney's standup special "Kid Gorgeous at Radio City", and as he was talking about the telephone and how we used to respect it, but now we just yell at it, I was suddenly at the entrance to Memory Lane.

When I was growing up, my mom had a telephone in her bedroom that was so cool. It was very Victorian, off white, and kind of heavy. I loved to use it. I will have to ask her what caused her to buy it. I mean, it would have been a bit of a splurge for her at the time. I wonder if she, too, felt fancy when she used it. If she felt glamorous, like a Hollywood star, when chatting on it. That's what it looks like to me, even today. Like a Hollywood star would use it.


Around the same time, my aunt Margaret had a Mickey Mouse phone. A real, working telephone that was shaped like Mickey Mouse! If I remember correctly, her bedroom was painted bright yellow, with this very cool telephone. I don't think I ever used it, but I did think it was the coolest thing ever.


And then I was in high school, and a very social butterfly. Because my parents also liked to make and receive telephone calls, they got me what used to be called a "children's line". There was even

a separate line in the published Columbus, Georgia telephone book that said, "Children's line". My friends would call the number, MY number, and if I didn't answer, or if it was busy for a really long time, they would sometimes call my parents' number. BIG mistake. My mom was a little more patient than my dad. But, if you can imagine an United States Army Infantry Soldier working a full day in the service to our country, only to come home at night and be accosted by ring-after-ring for his daughter, even after installing and paying for her own line ... well, you do the math. As my parents and I like to joke today, "They only did that once".


On a sweet side note, my dad said to my mom during my high school years, "She is always in her bedroom. Is that okay? Is she okay? Are we all okay?" Mom assured him that my absence during those evening hours, listening to Van Halen's Diver Down and talking to Ronnie, Tracy, Steve, Karl, or any number of others, was very, very normal.


And then, college. I lived with my grandparents back in Alabama while attending U.A.H. The phone in their home (and notice that I said THE phone) hung on the wall in the kitchen. When I moved in with them, they bought a new phone cord that was very, very long so I could stretch it from the kitchen to the living room. If I remember correctly, it was the first rotary phone I had ever used. Even in our sweet little house in the Five Points area of Huntsville, our telephone, also on the wall in the kitchen, was push button.


What's the big deal about a rotary phone? Well, anything above a "7" in the telephone number you were calling seemed to take an excruciatingly long time. You see, you had to place your finger in the circle of the round plastic dialer above the number you wanted and wind it clockwise until your finger met the little silver stopper. The stopper was placed just above the "0", meaning that the higher numbers had a longer turn. Then, once the number (with your finger inserted in the plastic dialer) was at the stopper, you pulled out your finger, and it spun back around to the beginning. In those days, telephone numbers were seven digits long, and if you had a 857-0999 number, it was, like, UGH!


And now, from across the room, I say, "Siri, what is the high temperature today?" The telephone then answers me in the language, voice, and nationality (accent) that I choose. If a call is not clear or drops mid-conversation, I feel somehow inconvenienced that the cell towers which beam unseen frequencies back and forth to fucking satellites have let me down. We now refer to "dead spots" in "cell coverage". There is an entirely new vocabulary around telephones. As John Mulaney points out, the quicker we are used to getting things, the meaner we become. "Are you fucking kidding me?" is the cry when I lose a call mid-sentence. "I only have two bars" is the lament in rural areas. "No Service" once stopped me from buying a home.


You've come a long way, baby.








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