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How upright were the Blumenaus of Hope Street?

Why, they wouldn’t even cheat Ma Bell.

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February 22, 1970.

It’s early 1970. My Aunt Elaine is in grad school at Boston University, leading a life of her own, but still seeing her folks and her grandma from time to time.

On this particular day, she’s left Hope Street to go back to school (a trip that should only take three hours, according to Mapquest; perhaps the weather or traffic slowed her down).

To let her family know she dodged the maniacal New England highway drivers and got back safely, she’s made just about the shortest possible telephone call you can make and still be polite.

And it’s still cost somebody 3.5 cents per second.

(Not sure whether the call was collect, or on my aunt’s dime … but my grandpa made note of the cost, so he must have known. He may have been paying the bill either way.)

This makes me think of the old practice of collect-calling a previously agreed-on name as a means of delivering a message. The person being called would turn down the collect call request, because hearing the pre-arranged name told them all they needed to know — at no cost to anyone.

As I’ve mentioned before — five years ago to the day; how weird is that? — the name used on my mom’s side of the family for that purpose was “Evelyn Keyes.

In the mid-’80s, when my maternal grandparents either sold their old home in Stamford or closed on their new home in Rochester, we got a collect call for Evelyn Keyes — which we turned down, knowing events had gone according to plan.

My maternal grandma’s name was Evelyn; the “Keyes” part referred to Evelyn either getting the keys to her new home, or handing over the keys to her old one.

(I believe Evelyn Keyes was also pressed into service on prior occasions for we-got-home-safe purposes, though my memories of that are not as specific. Of course, once those grandparents moved to a home five minutes away from ours, our need for such deceptions declined sharply.)

My younger readers — if indeed I have any — might wonder why people went to such lengths to avoid putting through a short phone call. Was it really that big a deal?

Well, 35 cents in 1970 equals about $2.20 today. That’s not a budget-breaker for most people … but it’s a hell of a lot to pay when all you want to do is tell a loved one in Connecticut that you got to Boston okay. From a 2017 perspective, something like that should be free, right?

Plus, your regional phone company was a monopoly back then, and it kinda had things all its own way. It wasn’t doing you a lot of favors, so the tendency was to get your own back, in small ways, where you could.

To accomplish the same errand today, you might send your family an email or a text. Or you might mention on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram that you got home safe. Or you might use your free friends-and-family calling plan and make a quick call. All user-friendly options; all instantaneous; all more or less free.

(What do you think the executives of Southern New England Telephone in 1970 would have said if you’d told them that, in the future, calls to friends and family would be free? They’d have metaphorically hung up on you.)

Personally, I kinda wish the ways Americans communicated hadn’t changed so radically, because I miss the fun of the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

If Ma Bell still had a monopoly, I would revel in creating so many collect-call aliases, my friends and family would need a folder to keep track of what they all meant.

A collect call from George Deukmejian? That means “too tired to cook tonight; order a pizza.” James Jackson Storrow? That must be “working late; eat without me.” Tristan Tzara? “Kidnapped by aliens; will be home in four days with curious rashes and significant memory loss.” (Hey, you gotta be prepared for anything.)

But, times have changed, and the old ways have gone.

And anyway, the underlying point of this whole essay is that the Hope Street Blumenaus didn’t take the easy way out. My Aunt Elaine didn’t make a collect call to Montgomery Clift or Kevin White at my grandparents’ phone number, and my grandparents didn’t turn it down with a wink and a nudge.

She put the call through, and however begrudgingly, my grandfolks took it. They noted every cent and every second, and they knew they would pay for it, but they took it.

I guess you need some folks like that in the world, to keep society on the rails and everything working right.

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Step back with us, won’t you, to a time when your triumphs and problems were your neighbors’ business

… when a series of rattling spins and clicks provided a dramatic prologue to every conversation …

… and when a hero to all sons of western New York was making convoluted, enigmatic introductions like this one every week on network television.

(There is a classic Blumenau family story involving Rod Serling, and perhaps someday I will tell it; but not now. There will be time enough at last.)

This week 50 years ago, we find the youth of 1107 Hope Street celebrating a victory distinctly of its time and place:

Sept. 11, 1963.

Sept. 11, 1963. Whitey Ford and Alvin Jackson cruise to complete-game wins for New York’s baseball teams, who are, respectively, in first place by 13 games and in last by 39 1/2.

Ah, yes, the days when all phones were anchored on desks or walls — and if you wanted another one, you had to have Ma Bell’s minions come put it in. My dad remembers:

I do know that AT&T was a total monopoly when I was growing up, and they owned your phone and the wiring and all, and you rented it each month.  If you wanted two phones, you paid more and rented two phones.  And they could tell from some electrical measurement if you had doctored your system (added an illegal phone).

For many years, the only phone at 1107 Hope Street lived on my grandfather’s desk, in a niche on the first floor just outside the kitchen. There wasn’t much in the way of privacy.

My dad: I would wander across the street to Springdale Methodist Church to telephone girls to ask them out on dates because I didn’t want anyone to hear!

My aunt: Your grandfather and father once had a lot of fun making noise while I was attempting to talk to a male caller. I don’t recall nagging to get another phone, but I probably should have, if only for the privacy reason.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

Of course, what the kids saw as a lack of privacy, the adults saw as an opportunity. My grandparents used to time my aunt’s phone calls with a kitchen timer and bell, to keep her from tying up the line for too long. (My aunt says she would tiptoe into the kitchen and turn the timer back to buy more time on the phone.)

Finally, in the fall of 1963, my grandparents agreed to end the phone wars and have a second phone (not a second line; just a second phone) installed on the second floor, in the hallway between the bedrooms and bathroom.

It wasn’t a concession to the kids, but a way to make their own lives easier.

My dad: Think about it: they were getting older, and at that time there was no voice recording, so if you didn’t make it downstairs in time, you missed the call and spent the next 3 hours wondering who called!  I think that’s all there was behind it.

My aunt: As your grandparents only splurged on items for practical reasons, I too believe the second phone was installed because your grandparents found it more difficult to sprint  down the stairs to answer the phone.

October 1980. There was a small cabinet in the hall between my great-grandma's and grandparents' bedrooms, with a phone on top. My great-grandma is marking her 94th birthday with a phone call to someone, sitting on a clothes hamper. The door behind her leads to my grandparents' bedroom, I believe.

I’ve used this pic before. Here’s my great-grandma using the upstairs phone on her 94th birthday in October 1980. The phone is almost certainly a Western Electric Model 500 — in black, as you can see.

I do not know whether my grandpa — a tinkerer and a curious sort — ever figured out how to dial one phone from the other, creating his own benign variation on the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house scenario. It sounds like the kind of thing he would have taken advantage of to save himself a trip up or down the stairs.

I also do not know whether my grandfather ever owned an answering machine. I cannot for the life of me remember his ever having one.

(The one thing I do remember about my grandparents was that my grandma was deaf as a stone post, and her hearing aid used to whistle when she was on the phone, maybe ’cause she’d cranked it up high. I can still hear the sound.)

By the time my family left 1107 Hope, Ma Bell was no longer a monopoly, and the company’s hold on phone installation had been relaxed.

I don’t remember for sure, but I think my grandfolks’ subsequent home in the Rochester area might even have had *three* phones — one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom area and one in the basement.

I dunno if that’s true, though. Sounds awfully profligate for people who clung so strictly to a single phone for so many years.

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