How to Use a Phone… Possibly

28 Jul

The powerful force that is iPod Nano is having trouble with the intricacies of his or her feature set. I wade in with a cautionary tale about escalating phone service turf wars and possibly, a little practical advice…

iPod Nano –

I’ll have to admit up front that I’m a little unfamiliar with most of these terms. I did pick up “Phone,” “does” and “INTERNET,” but beyond that you might as well have been speaking Esperanto for all the sense it made to me.

I’m constantly amazed by the variety of communication options the youth of today have at their disposal. (Well, not “constantly.” I do take a little time off from my amazement now and then, usually to do “something for me.” “Something” usually entails a nap, a glass of Scotch or a Scotch-related nap.)

When I was younger, we were limited to alternating weekday use of the local party line and some makeshift tin can-and-string phones. The adults (who actually paid the rent on the line) had the line tied up day after day, talking to each other about gout remedies, the new (and unmarried) woman who had moved in down the hall, which percentage of lye would remove stains but not skin or hair, whether or not the Kaiser was “full of it” and so on.

If my friends and I wanted to have a long, private conversation without having to look at each other, we would turn to our old standby, the tin-can-o-phone. This gave us the chance to speak uninterrupted for the most part. Occasionally rival tin-can operators would cut our string or attach one of their own strings to our pre-existing network with the intent to hijack the conversation(s).

We’d retaliate by grafittiing the nearest alleyway with disparaging rumours about their incredibly small coverage area or insinuating that usage of their tin-can system reflected poorly on the “tied-in” individuals and was quite possibly an affront to God. (Most things were in those days, and those who argued this “fact” tended to be labeled “affronts” the fastest.)

As more and more people sought to add their own string to these networks, a greater number of rivals began operating in the area. They would undercut our string system with offers of fatter, more secure string or additional cans placed in convenient and semi-private areas.

Tensions ran high, causing line snappages in major boroughs and wreaking havoc on our semi-private lives. A few kids came across some hemp, which was a major breakthrough thanks to its longevity and potential smokability.

The hemp looked to put most of us out of business but Karen Judson’s parents de-regulated the industry by throwing out every manner of thread, yarn and twine in their garage one afternoon. Small startups tied on to hemp lines, gradually bleeding the system of its precarious exclusivity.

We all raced against the inevitable, devolving into a series of small-time turf wars predicated on “strand thickness” and “can portablility.” The first kid who realized you could transmit of heavy-duty fishing line was a millionaire by age 15. The young entrepreneur who discovered that a tomato paste can could do the same job as a #10 (with no signal degradation or noticeable volume drop) sold out to Jacob Bell’s authoritarian mother for an undisclosed amount of coinage and chewing tobacco.

The rise of private phone ownership soon sank our beloved industry. We began to communicate with each other through a mixture of indecipherable hand gestures and blind ads in the local paper. Our parents enjoyed their newfound freedom, which allowed them to find out the latest on their siblings’ mostly illegitimate children without having to suffer through 20 minutes of corn medication recommendations or a post-potluck recipe exchange.

So, to answer your original question: yes. The internet IS amazing!

Clifton L. Tanager

8 Responses to “How to Use a Phone… Possibly”

  1. elizabeth3hersh July 29, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    Someone should coin the word phonicide. So many times (back in the day) I wanted to split open a pay phone with a machete and painstakingly carve its guts out (invariably after losing my last dime or quarter). These feelings persisted with the clunky and cumbersome Motorola DynaTAC 8000X as the reception sputtered in and out and I found myself having unilateral after unilateral conversation. I currently own a phone that has lasted 15 years (which happens to be equivalent to 15 dog years by technological standards). Amazingly, this phone is still going strong in spite of a weekly 4′ floor drop and ritual handset slammings performed between 5-9 am daily (my ‘business hours’) following a verbal excoriation of one kind or another with graduates of the Peter Principle (dramatically utilized to ‘make a point’ or as a verbal exclamation point). The 8 key is persistently sticky and I often end up dialing multiple times if the number contains any 8s. If it is a 1-888-878-8864 number my eyes will drift over to the meat cleaver and I will use my middle finger to depress the 8 key (quite forcefully). Enough about me. This post brought to mind a quote by Stringer Bell in The Wire:

    Country: “Yo, uh, String, why are you so down on the phone companies, man?”

    Stringer: “While back, I took a stroll through the pit. I saw that kid we got running things down there, uh, Poot. Now, he got the cell phone I gave him for the business, right there on his hip. But, the nigga got another cell phone that only rang when the pussy called. Now, if this no-count nigga got two cell phones, how the fuck you gonna sell any more of them motherfuckers? That’s market saturation.”

    As a child, I had occasion to visit rural parts where I discovered hand-pumped wells, outhouses and party-lines. We take our creature comforts for granted. I guess that includes phones, even if they stick (and suck).

    • Clifton L. Tanager August 3, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

      Elizabeth –

      The phone is an everlasting source of irritation, thanks to its many features (most of which are inaccessible), its ability to detect and drop important calls and its inability to walk away from a fight.

      I’ve thrown my share of phones in my day, but the old string-and-a-can version were the most dangerous, especially for the person on the other end of the line. Kind of makes you wish they’d bring those back, if only for use with telemarketers and annoying relatives.

  2. thestuffinbetween July 30, 2010 at 1:40 am #


    I could only reflect back to my youth where I would spend countless hours with my friends relaying messages with our tin-can-o-phones. The messages came across contorted and resulted in many neighborhood wars where kids would pick up sticks and begin ranting, thinking someone said, “You stink,” when they only said, “You think.” It was worse when a word that rhymed with a swear word was used.

    Finally, tired of taking her children to the ER, one of the neighborhood mothers came around with a pair of scissors and cut all of the strings to all of the phones, then promptly stomped on all of the tin cans until they were flattened. Then she threw it all into a brown paper bag and stared at us disapprovingly before turning to leave–our entire network shredded and smashed, swung by her side.

    No one said a word for two days until one of the kids came around with something he’d found in his dad’s glove box: a walkie talkie. Even though there was only one with no battery, we passed it around and talked into it to no avail.

    Still, it was a start.

    • Clifton L. Tanager August 3, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

      Stuff –

      Many a mixed message was sent via the old “landline,” the repercussions of which are still felt today. I think with a little research one could connect the current feuds between the Crips and the Bloods, East Coast and West Coast Rappers and Miley Cyrus vs. Hannah Montana to misheard threats and oneupmanship.

      It’s amazing how little it takes to bring down an entire network. Until you see it happen, like you did with the angry mother (and the Japanese saw, several times, with Godzilla), you tend to believe this fragile system is nearly unbreakable.

      Thanks very much for the hilarious comment, stuff. I’m glad to see there were other wireless pioneers out there.

  3. Scott Oglesby July 30, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    Not only are you an amazing scribe but you also have a true and quite phenomenal gift of bringing back memories that don’t even belong to me. I almost remember sneaking out the back door while my dad was down in the basement either swearing at the furnace he was always trying to fix or swearing at his seemingly magic canning jar of the ‘shine,’ I don’t think it really mattered to him as long as he was angry, plastered and swearing at something. And he too loved his naps.

    I’d always run off down to the local crack for money exchange program/baseball field and we’d get up to all sorts of shenanigans. We played with the talking cans too until one day a horrific accident occurred. Well, truth be told it was neither horrific nor an accident but it did happen in my false memory.

    I remember the little blond headed Olson twins were getting on all of our nerves like the dickens because they kept hogging up the Marilyn Monroe soup can phone. So my little friend Ramos got the bright idea to tell then that he had America’s Funniest Home Video on the line ready to offer them a job as anorexic enablers and co-hosts. Well when they put that can to their ears Ramos lit an M-80 put his can on top of it and we all ran like the devil was nipping at our heels.

    The Olson twins both went deaf and dumb (but only in the one ear) as a result of that day and little Ramos was sent off to prison camp in Florida where he was beaten to death by overzealous guards who thought he was an illegal immigrant trying to break into the prison for the free room and board. His last name and hair contributed to his demise.

    Anyway, thanks for all the fantastic memories Clifton

    • Clifton L. Tanager August 3, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

      Scott –

      Holy hell! Those are some amazing (and disturbing) memories, even if they don’t actually belong to you. It’s a shame to see that Ramos was unable to curb his appetite for destruction, although it does seem that if something had to be blown up, it might as well be one of those eerily-thin Olsen twins.

      I hope you’ve been able to steer clear of the ballfield/crack exchange and hold onto more of your money, Scott. This telecommunications field is tougher than ever, what with all the “cellies blowin’ up.” Kind of makes you wish Jenny was back on the block. She always kept things “real.”

      Take care, Scott. Thanks for the disorienting comment.

  4. jammer5 August 3, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    I’m in total awe, which in my case is not that unusual, of your answer to Low down and shady. And, like many others, have been confronted with memories I thought I’d sold to either Chuck Norris or Tom Cruise for publishing in their collective ” autobiographical” works.

    One such memory was the ubiquitous party line. We had one, as did just about every house that had a phone, and ours was also populated by a seriously defective woman. Anytime I was on the phone, she came on and said she had an emergency and get off it now! Turned out she just hated kids.

    Another memory was finding out they put an ink substance on the old fire-emergency phones located at various and sundry places around town. Really difficult to lie to a fireman when you got ink all over your hands.

    Great post, amigo 🙂

    • Clifton L. Tanager August 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

      Jammer –

      Those firemen always had a trick or two up their enormous, sweaty sleeves. Perhaps the solution would have been to direct the defective to the nearest emergency phone, thus leaving the party line free for everyone’s enjoyment and her guilty hands full of ink.

      Thanks for the stellar comment and compliments, Jammer.

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