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February 24th, 2010


08:22 am
O young people, silence your cells and untwit your twitters!  Stretch your stiff little thumbs and unbud your ears while I tell you about The Way Things Were Back Then.  In deference to my laziness and your attention spans, I'll keep it brief. 

Back then we all remembered phone numbers, sometimes dozens of them, and particularly our own, which we were forced at an early age to memorize in case we got lost or kidnapped.  The assumption was that a benevolent or malevolent adult would ask our number and we, doe-eyed, would rattle off the seven digits that could connect this person instantly to our family dwelling, where - if our parents weren't out weeping at the police station - they would be sitting at home by the phone, furiously planning our punishments or re-counting ransom money.

We remembered other numbers too.  Those of our children and sisters and cousins, our best friends, our sweethearts and exes, our employers  and schools, and oh,  yes, that popular dreamboat from third period who we'd never actually call, but whose number we'd looked up in the phone book and committed to memory along with the set of wedding rings that would best match both of our skin tones.  I still sing that one to myself in my sleep.  We knew these numbers by heart, but we wrote them down in little paper phone books just in case.  Our parents wrote us young people down in pencil because we'd move and move and move again, whereas our ancient uncles' and grandparents' digits could easily have been scratched in concrete until it was time for a nursing home.

When the phone rang, you ran, because it might be a while before you talked to this person again.  There were no chats unless there was tea.  Skype was merely another inconvenience curable by a course of penicillin and a few Hail Marys.  You ran because there was no answering machine, and because when there finally was an answering machine, your mother would be on it, talking extra slowly and loudly, and she'd call back until you had no option other than to pick up the phone or throw away the answering machine and its cassette, and then where would you be when your long-distance lover spent precious dollars trying to reach you?  (Long distance cost, like, six dollars a minute.  True story: my then-boyfriend called me from a trip to Norway and our phone sex cost him hundreds.  Twice.  Although I dumped him when he got back, he still claimed I was worth it.  Just sayin'.)

We lived in houses with so many roommates.  Four, seven, ten, even fifteen housemates.  Hard to say whether it was better or worse with an odd or even number of them.  I usually favored even, just for symmetry's sake, but that's me.  We'd split the fridge and pantry so that there was no (overt and voluntary) sharing of food, but we all had to share the same phone line.  All us Mikes and Steves and Jennifers and Amys would irritably wait for our turn on the phone while some other Heather or David hogged the living room blabbing for hours with their bestest friend of the week.  And then, once a month, the phone bill would come.  Type-A David would highlight his long distance calls and post the bill on the fridge with a tidy passive-aggressive note about how everyone should claim all their calls this time and pay up before the-Christmas-after-next.  Some Jennifers and Steves would halfheartedly eyeball the list and check off any calls to the 914 or 718 area codes, and all the Mikes, Amys, and Heathers would ignore the whole mess until six weeks and another bill later, after David had paid it all out of his pocket and called a house meeting about how he wasn't our mom and everybody had better claim their calls before the next phone bill or he'd take his name off the thing, and did anyone else have a good enough credit rating to be put on the bill instead?  So Steve would claim that he didn't know anyone long distance and storm out of the room, Mike and Jennifer would initial a few calls, and Amy would sigh and pay for all those unclaimed calls to Detroit, Montgomery, Bakersfield, even though she was actually the only one who hadn't made any of them, because Amy was the one would have her name on the bill when Type-A David finally moved out in a huff.

What's that?  Ah.  No, I didn't actually think you'd done it.  Sure, go ahead and get it.  Facebook has some important new things that you don't want to miss.  Sorry that took so long.



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