Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Telephony Tales

Joy of Knitting tells a tale of woe (scroll down to the second paragraph) about switching telephone service in Italy. That reminds me of a few phone stories.

It used to be the case, in certain states at least, that the phone company was required by law to give a party line to anyone who asked for one. For those too young to remember, a party line was a shared line, with a distinctive ring for each customer sharing the line. When you heard your neighbor's ring, you could surreptitiously pick up the phone and eavesdrop on private conversations. Also, the monthly rate for a party line used to be less than the rate for an ordinary line. Party lines are nearly obsolete these days, and hardly anyone has one. A few years ago a friend in Georgia heard about the state regulation and demanded a party line, to save a few bucks on his phone bill every month. The phone company had to gave him one, at the lower rate. Of course there were no other parties on my friend's line, so he had the benefit of a single connection for the lower price of a party line. The phone company probably wasn't happy, because I'd wager that the cost of a party line card at the central office was greater than the cost of an ordinary line card.

On television nowadays, whenever an actor pronounces a telephone number, it starts with 555. In real life there are no such 555 phone numbers assigned to customers. This is done so that the viewing audience doesn't get through to a real number when they dial the number they hear on TV. Apparently many, many viewers actually dial these numbers, maybe in hopes of speaking to a Hollywood star on the other end.

Some vehicles owned by trucking companies sport a bumper sticker asking the question "How's my driving?" and giving an 800 number to call. A wag started selling bumper stickers for ordinary vehicles that said "Don't like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT." That happens to be a real phone number of a real company, although the receptionist will be surprised if you call and start complaining about someone's bad driving. She was when I called.

Before the days of caller ID and draconian laws, children sometimes picked a number at random out of the phone book, dialled it, and said something like "Hello. I'm doing a survey. Is your refrigerator running?" When the other party answered yes, the retort would be, "You'd better go catch it" or something equally amusing. A friend of mine used to do this occasionally on rainy afternoons, when we were in grammar school together. But whenever he handed me the phone to give me a turn, I could never get past the "Hello," because I would dissolve into giggles first.

Most kids these days have never seen a rotary dial phone. When I was growing up, all phones were owned by the phone company, and all had rotary dials. I pine for those good old days. It was touch tone that gave rise to those automated phone systems we all love to hate. "Press 1 if you have a question about your bill, press 2 if you wish to place an order, be prepared to wait on hold for at least half an hour, your call is important to us, etc."

Phone numbers in the small town of my youth had four digits only. Today you must dial ten digits to call from St. Paul to Minneapolis, because the proliferation of cell phones makes more and more numbers necessary. You'd think that the solution would be to give numbers starting with a special prefix to all cell phone subscribers. But there's a law against it.

Don't get me started on cell phones. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary defines telephone as "An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance." If the devil invented the telephone, then surely the high prince of all demons invented the cell phone.

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