Years ago, walking across the Orleans Street Bridge, I passed a homeless man slumped before a styrofoam cup. In his hand, a cell phone.
It seemed a significant moment, since mobile phones, when they first showed up, were accessories of the rich. It was considered arrogant just to take one out and make a call. To be seen doing it, in a public place like a restaurant, as if you were so important you couldn't wait to make your phone calls in private. As if you wanted everyone to see and admire you.
So this homeless person having a phone, well, it seemed a symbolic shift, an elephant step toward our then-unimaginable world where every 7-year old, every Somalian fisherman, every one almost everywhere has a cell phone. (Not quite. This year the world count of cell phones is expected to hit 5 billion, meaning some 65 percent of the earth's population has one).
This was before I was in the habit of snapping photos of such things. Nor did I have the presence of mind to talk to the homeless man, try to find out who he was calling. Now I can't even recall the year.
I've come to regret that lapse, and vowed to not let similar technological turning points slip by unnoticed.
So I have to point out what happened in the Steinberg household Saturday: We gave up our land line. That is not the newsworthy part, in fact, we are late to it. In 2016, for the first time in the better part of a century, since the number of telephones exploded between the world wars, more U.S. households were without a land line—50.8 percent—than had one.
The noteworthy part, to me, is not that it happened, but that it was so unexceptional. As nostalgic as I am, or was, the decision was a no brainer. Losing the landline saved us close to $500 a year. The only calls we got were scam artists, charities, and scam charities ... and my mother, who smoothly transitioned over to calling my cell, something she had already learned to do when I wasn't at home.
In the days since, I've adapted easily myself. A few small changes—mainly carrying my iPhone around more at home, in case somebody calls. The portable phone stations—we had three—are in a pile, ready to be dumped in the bin on electronics drop-off day at the Village hall.
AT&T was smooth and efficient—not only did we cut our landline, but we lost cable, which required installation of fiber optic lines for broadband. Their guy was out for hours, unfailingly polite, explaining what he was doing, trying to build a relationship.
Yes, I still have my trusty black rotary dial phone on my desk, the handset embossed "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY: NOT FOR SALE Western Electric." Bought for $5 on eBay, years ago. I used to be able to dial out, not so long ago. The thing was probably made in Chicago, home to the giant Western Electric Hawthorne works, that at one time employed 45,000 people (the Eastland disaster, remember, was on a Western Electric company outing).
I think I'll keep it there, for a little while longer anyway, symbol of ... what? I'm not sure anymore. Of the transitional telephone generation I represent: arriving after party lines, toward the end of alphanumeric phone exchanges—dial CAlumet 5-6969—and before princess phones and push button dialing. Long distance was a big deal, and expensive, and there were human operators you could dial, part of the mystery and romance to the phone company.
And danger, a sense of menace from The Phone Company, or TPC, for those who remember "The President's Analyst," an unfairly forgotten 1967 James Coburn vehicle—unfairly because it was ahead of its time, in that it postulated a troubled president, and an insidious gun culture. Running from the various shady forces trying to get him, Coburn hides out with a typical America family, the Quantrills.
"These are liberal times," the dad intones, darkly, before his son bursts in brandishing a .357 Magnum, earning this delicious paternal rebuke: "Darn it Bing, I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house, that is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now put that right back in the glove compartment...."
Bigger than governments and intelligence agencies, the all-powerful The Phone Company, is hoping to implant micro-telephones directly into your brain.
"Why all you have to do is think the number of the person you wish to speak with an you are instant communication anywhere in the world," marvels TPC's leader.
They couldn't know that, with computers, the numbers themselves would no longer be necessary, once they were plugged in and attached to a name. At least we still have names. For the moment.
|The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn, center.|