A person’s memory is tricky: some can recall specific dates—not infamous like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor—(like my son Nicky) and pull a Rain Man, outlining the details; others list all their teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade; still more can cite every single concert they’ve ever been to. That last one rankles me, as I’ve been trying for weeks, off and on, to remember the roster of a show I attended with boyhood friend Bobby Walton at Tanglewood in the summer of ’74. Could’ve been John Prine, David Bromberg, Randy Newman or Jerry Jeff Walker topping the bill: it’s lost to me. But we had a swell boozy, hash-infused time.
No great feat, but I can recite, instantly, the telephone number at the house I grew up in Huntington, Long Island: HA1-1141. (And the zip code: 11743.) I suspect my brothers can as well, even if we’ve forgotten the numbers of subsequent homes. This was in the 1960s, before the two letters were dropped from your number, a small harbinger of how enormously the entire business would change. Lots of people complain—every day, it seems—about the Millennials’ fixation on their cells, but as a kid I logged significant time on the horn with school buddies. And when I was babysitting, forget it, my ear was calloused by the end of the night. Just a dipsy doodle in means of communication.
My mom was a phone hag—this was in rotary days, I can’t remember when push-button numbers caught on—and she gabbed and gabbed and gabbed with the likes of Louise Hartman, Laurie Howard, Jean Wheeler, Bernice Riley, my Uncle Pete, and I never could figure out what was left to say after an hour of conversation. And if the trunk line kicked in—when strangers were out of nowhere patched into the conversation—my mom said hello and asked about maybe when high tide was at Brown’s Beach, or the upcoming opening of a new Big Apple supermarket in town. My brothers and I joked that she’d talk the ear off of a hobo on the street given half a chance. My dad, who was Spartan in conversation, was all business on the phone: no schmooze, no sports chatter, just the facts.
The wrinkle in all this telephone jazz was long-distance calls. Sacrosanct. It may or may not surprise those under 45, but companies charged a lot more for non-local calls, and the amount of miles—and I’m referring just to domestic here; forget about international—jacked up the rate. So, when my mom was speaking with one of my brothers at college—as my wife Melissa’s illustration above shows (originally printed to accompany one of my New York Press MUGGER columns in the mid-90s)—no rumpus was allowed. “I’m on long-distance,” she’d say loudly, and the gravity of her command—and recognition of the cost—kept my trap shut.
Long-distance could also be used as a ruse to shoo people away. Back in 1986, the morning after attending a Mets-Astros playoff game with three of my brothers, I was at Penn Station very early, really worse for wear, and riffled through the newsstand, where I came upon the first issue of Spy magazine. I was knocked out by the content, recognizing this new monthly potentially carried the import of the early copies of Rolling Stone and National Lampoon, and wrote as much in the column RUMP in Baltimore’s City Paper. I was early: Spy was just about to catch on, but editors Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter appreciated the review, and a month later I was treated to a long, and very informative, lunch in Soho by Carter.
Moving to New York just a year later, to start NYP, I’d made another lunch date with Carter, with his stipulation that this time I pick up the tab. I called to confirm on a January weekday in 1988, and his assistant relayed the unwelcome news that Mr. Carter would have to postpone, as he was on long-distance with someone in London. I always thought that was kind of fishy, since by the late-80s, such calls weren’t uncommon, but let it ride. Years later, at some Vanity Fair book party, Carter admitted as much—he remembered it clearly—saying he was just swamped by an inter-office crisis of some sort.
As it is today, although I’ve mastered the rudiments of my large-screen iPhone, I still can’t figure out how to put someone on hold when another call comes in. My son Booker’s instructed me countless times on the procedure, but I just don’t get the hang of it.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955