Posts Tagged ‘telephone’

It was a big day in New York City on Sept. 24, 1970.

Of course, I guess it’s always a big day in New York City. But if you were able to walk through walls, ghost-style, and also able to park in front of any building you wanted, Theo Kojak-style, you could have seen the following eminences that day in the five boroughs:

Muhammad Ali met with boxing officials and underwent a physical examination at the offices of the New York State Athletic Commission, about a month before his comeback fight against Jerry Quarry. The New York Times described him as “subdued,” showing a “quiet demeanor and disinclination to boast.”

Sophia Loren and her husband, director Carlo Ponti, were in town to promote Loren’s latest movie, “Sunflower.” (According to Wiki, it was the first Western movie filmed in the U.S.S.R.)

-Director Otto Preminger was in town too, though not to shoot or promote a film. According to the Times (which will be my source for info henceforth unless otherwise credited), he attended a fundraiser at Sardi’s restaurant for U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell.

-Canadian actor Christopher Plummer stopped in town briefly, en route back home to be installed as a Companion of the Order of Canada. The Times reported him speaking enthusiastically about his next role as Frederick the Great, in between sips of a Bloody Mary in the Algonquin Hotel lobby.

-Other performers in town included comedians Bob and Ray, performing at the Golden Theater; gypsy violinist Sandor Lakatos; and Cleavon Little and Melba Moore in “Purlie” at the Broadway Theatre.

-Photographer Bruce Davidson was back in Harlem, showing copies of his book East 100th Street to some of the people he’d photographed for it two or three years prior.

-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was in town to pick up a re-election endorsement from the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association. (Mayor John Lindsay was in town too, of course, breaking ground on a new police station in the Bronx.)

-The Mets were on the road and the Yankees idle, but Joe Namath and the New York Jets were practicing at Rikers Island ahead of their Sunday, Sept. 27, game against the Boston Patriots.

(This roundup doesn’t include Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, who were in New York in character though maybe not in person. Their Manhattan-set The Odd Couple made its network TV debut the night of September 24.)

The usual bustle of life in New York went on that day despite a serious power shortage caused by unseasonably warm weather. Con Ed imposed voltage cuts for the third straight day, causing shrunken images on TV sets, while the New York Telephone Co. fired up auxiliary generators for the second day to power its offices and network.

And, amid all that, my dad was in New York City too.


No one seems to remember what led him there, except that it must have been work-related, as he wouldn’t have just gone to New York by himself.

(The note “Stuff to Jac. Penfield” probably means that my grandparents dropped off some things with my other grandparents in Stamford, the Jacobellises, so they could bring it to my parents in Penfield, N.Y. That further suggests that my dad was in New York City on work duties: He would have stopped off in nearby Stamford and picked up the stuff himself, if he’d been able to.)

Inevitably, there is a record of this exchange, as there was for every long-distance call my grandparents were involved in. I wonder when they started that practice and why: Did they get hit with false charges at some point?

My parents have never much enjoyed going to New York City, so it doesn’t surprise me that a brief work trip would be forgotten all these years later. I don’t remember every single place my employers have ever sent me, either.

If anything, then, this calendar entry serves as a reminder of how fast things fade.

Work meetings and projects seem so important when you’re doing them — and if you’re getting sent out of town, that must be even more important.

But try remembering what you were working on five years later — much less 47 years later — and unless it was really major, like a corporate takeover or something, you’re bound to have forgotten.

Work stuff drives us gray, and gives us heart attacks and ulcers and restless nights … but it doesn’t take long for those super-important tasks to vanish into the dustbin and never get seen again.

(If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go apply to be a lighthouse keeper or a tree farmer or something.)


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How upright were the Blumenaus of Hope Street?

Why, they wouldn’t even cheat Ma Bell.


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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One of the two calendar items shown this week is still current, while the other is faded and gone.

I don’t know if, given the choice in 1974, my grandfather would have predicted which would be which.

February 5-6, 1974.

February 5-6, 1974.

The CPI inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website says 55 cents in 1974 has the same purchasing power as $2.64 today.

Two dollars and sixty-four cents is well more than the current price of a gallon of gas where I live — and that’s not including the discounts you can get by buying through grocery stores or discount clubs.

Just the other night, my wife used a whole bunch of piled-up gas discount points that were about to expire, and ended up filling her tank for roughly $1.25 per gallon.

Whether this run of low gas prices is a good thing is debatable … and it certainly isn’t going to last forever.

Still, if you dropped my grandfather into 2015 and gave him an inflation calculator to work with, he would recognize the gas prices of the moment as roughly akin to what he used to pay in the Seventies.

(His underline of 55 cents suggests he maybe wasn’t thrilled about paying that price. So he wouldn’t necessarily be happy. But he wouldn’t be shocked, either.)

On the other hand, the days of using phone books are going, maybe even gone — never mind the days when one left oneself a note to remember to start using the latest edition.

There was only one phone book then, I’m fairly certain. That’s not like today, when we seem to get two or three different versions a year and we don’t need any of them.

Once in the bluest of moons, I will take out a phone book and look something up. Usually, it’s when I need someone to perform a service I don’t need very often, and I’m too lazy to go downstairs to Google it, and the phone’s charging so I can’t look it up on that, and I’ve forgotten to ask a co-worker for a recommendation. This happens maybe three or four times a year, and the number dwindles as the years pass.

It’s interesting: Running an Internet search for, say, barbers in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania will still turn up a lot of dead-end links, false-front pages and general crap. It’s not a perfect process by any means.

And yet, most people I know prefer the online search, hassles and all, to the familiar, time-honored method of looking in a phone book — to the point where the print lookup is pretty much obsolete.

(I should watch my words, I suppose. I’m sure the phone book still has its loyalists, all of whom probably read Hope Street and will let me know in no uncertain terms that they still prefer the old ways. Phone books are still good for propping up stuff that needs a little more height, too. And they burn a while, if you’ve got a fire pit in the yard.)

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there's at least one great story in this image but I don't know what it is.

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there’s at least one great story in this image but I don’t know what it is. Maybe if I look under “W” for Writers, Fiction …

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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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If the Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon administrations had wanted a look at my grandfather’s phone records, they wouldn’t have needed a secret court order to get them from Ma Bell.

They would only have had to send someone to stand outside his window and peek in at his calendar — a task so simple, even the bumbling Watergate burglars could have pulled it off.

(I think.)

My grandpa was in the habit of documenting many, and maybe all, of his long-distance phone calls on his calendar. Not only the outgoing calls, but the incoming ones, too.

And if one ran long, that was usually noted, as well. (What d’ya suppose constituted “long” in his frugal view? Fifteen minutes? That was probably when he started pacing and checking the clock.)

For instance, after a blessed event in the summer of 1973, he used some of the free space on his calendar for the following notation:

July 31 and 32, 1973.

July 31 and 32, 1973. The Yankees are in first; the Mets are in last. Life is funny.

I don’t remember — or perhaps I never knew — who my grandparents knew in Trumbull, a town a little farther east in Fairfield County. Apparently someone in Trumbull was a close enough friend to merit calling with some big family news … but not close enough to be identified on the calendar by name, like everyone else.

And apparently my Great-Aunt Eleanor got an especially long call. Perhaps she had news of her own to share.

I sometimes wonder why my grandfather kept such careful track of his long-distance phone calls.

Perhaps he’d had a bad experience with Ma Bell — maybe he’d been charged for eighteen phone calls to Brazil once — and he wrote down all his phone calls from then on, so he could use that record as evidence in case of future disputes.

Or maybe he wrote them down so he could keep tabs on his phone costs, the same way a modern cell-phone user might take pains not to go over their texting limit. Maybe a long phone call to Rochester in the first week of the month meant a foreshortened one in the third week. Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

(I am imagining my grandpa in the cell-phone age, shrugging his shoulders and explaining in a bemused tone: “I get free calls on nights and weekends now! So I stopped writing ’em down. Didn’t seem like I needed to any more.”)

The recent news about the Obama administration commandeering vast amounts of telephony data from Verizon arouses age-old suspicions about just how closely our government is keeping tabs on us.

It makes me wonder what the notoriously venal Nixon administration would have done with those phone records.

And — while I don’t overmuch care how closely The Man is watching me — I wonder whether The Man ever had occasion to check in on William Blumenau of Stamford, Connecticut.

I cannot imagine in a million years that the federal government or its operatives ever had reason to find my grandpa on their radar screens.

Hard-working, middle-aged, politically conservative and disdainful of public protest, my grandfather (and my grandma, and my great-grandma) would have been absolutely the last people to cause the slightest bit of trouble.

The Man would have had His hands full dealing with all the people trying to kick out the jams, tear down the walls and bring the war home in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He would never have cared about the occupants of 1107 Hope Street.

And yet … if today’s government can execute such a sweeping grab for the personal information of its citizens, who knows what might have happened in the past? Does anyone really think this is the first time, legal or not?

I am sure my grandpa never had his own file. But perhaps he was part of a larger one … a row of figures in some paranoid data grab, or a footnote in some foot-high pile of papers.

I kinda wish he were. Not because he was any sort of rebel, but because the inclusion of Bill Blumenau in any list of people to watch would have demonstrated the absurdity of keeping those sorts of lists without a laser-tight focus — as the Obama administration seems to have done.

That’s all speculation, anyway.

For now we’ll return to what we know — a middle-aged man for whom long-distance calls are something of a luxury, scrawling dutifully on his monthly calendar, keeping a detailed record of his communications that the government will never see.

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