A Gen X History of Phones

The first phone I remember was in Port Chester, and I still know the number: 914-939-7520. It was in a wooden box and it looked like a phone in a very fancy coffin, and honestly, I think it was prophesying… something… about what would change in telecommunications over the next five decades.

When we moved to Florida, we had a wall mount phone and a party line, which we shared with an elderly German couple, the Mews, who lived down the street and never seemed to use their phone at all. We had the best phone number, which I’m certain a few friends remember but I won’t share here because it’s still my dad’s cell number.

Eventually, my parents bought an extra-long cord so I could have a little more freedom of movement on my oh-so-important calls to… I don’t know who I called at age 11, but someone. Lots of someones, actually. I made a lot of hesitating, embarrassing phone calls to boys who had no interest in me but at all from that kitchen phone. My dad remodeled the kitchen a few years back and there’s a refrigerator where the phone used to be.

My first phone of my own was a trimline phone in my room. It was mint green. It had buttons instead of a dial and I thought that was perfection. The biggest problem was that the buttons made noise when I dialed and that made it hard to spend as much time on the phone as I wanted to spend, because my parents were all, “you need to study because algebra matters” and while I’m still not sure it does, I see the larger point now.

As a teenager, I also had one shaped like a piano and the keys were the buttons that made a played a somewhat corresponding note when I dialed. If I wanted to make a call without my parents knowing, I had to take the batteries out of the phone so the keys wouldn’t make noise. This was an oddity: Batteries in a phone. Yes, gather ’round, little ones, because in my day, most phones didn’t require power. You plugged the phone into the phone jack (like an outlet but linked to wires that went to every building in America) and the phone just magically worked. No charging. No power insecurities. No “you now need to replace every charger in your house because you bought a phone that’s one-half millimeter smaller.” We didn’t even know what chargers were. You may as well have talked to us about Google or iPods. Simpler times.

This piano phone was the phone I was on when I realized my parents had ponied up for call waiting, because I heard the beep while I was on the phone with one of my friends. It’s also the phone I spent a lot of time on with my friend Neil, who now lives in Korea and I communicate with solely via Facebook, largely because I spent so much time on the phone instead of studying that I struggle to calculate time zone math. I also talked to my friend Russ a lot. Russ and I now communicate on occasion via text, but mostly by tagging his wife on Facebook and she relays the message.

Sometime during my high school years, we bought a phone with an answering machine. This, young ones, was the precursor to voice mail, but it was physical – a teeny, tiny cassette tape that fit inside the base of the phone (Because phones used to come in two parts) and – this is the best part, and I miss it – you could listen to people leaving messages as they left them, so if you decided you wanted to talk to them, you could pick up mid-message. This, of course, led to a lot of messages that started with, “Hey, are you there? Are you screening? Pick up. Pick up! No? OK, well, call me.” (And then, of course, if it wasn’t close family or friends, the person would have to leave a number because – get this – we had to dial phone numbers. One number at a time. We didn’t have to dial all 10 numbers, though, unless we were calling long distance, which we only did on Sundays unless someone had died, because we paid by the minute to talk long distance. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how it worked.)

And then I had a cordless phone, with buttons, with the answering machine built in, without tape. It was digital! No one really knew what “digital” meant but it was snazzy and we wanted it. We also had no idea where the messages were kept, but we suspected the phones had a sort of sympathetic magic thing happening: The phone kept the messages safe for us until we were ready to retrieve them, much like pagans would bring tree boughs inside during the winter to keep the tree’s spirit alive until warmer weather arrived.

In the mid-90s, I bought a phone for my car that I paid by the minute to use. I could talk for 30 minutes a month before I paid something like 60¢ a minute if I went over, and whether you talked for one second or 60 seconds, that was a minute (except for one phone company, Aerial, that became part of T-Mobile and that is one of the reasons I love this company today, even though paying by the minute to talk is so 1999) and yes, I did have an $800 phone bill one month, although for a brief while, if you called someone who used the same cellular service as you did, you could talk as long as you wanted, for free, with no minute restrictions. This, of course, is back when we actually used phones to verbally convey information.

Next, I owned a Tele-Go, a phone that functioned like a cordless phone in your own home, then cellular when you moved too far away from the base station. Felt like an early adapter with that one, I did. If this sounds quaint to all y’all who grew up with a cell phone, well, just remember my friend Linda’s older brother had a cordless phone once that wouldn’t get static-y until he hit the end of the block and his family was quite excited.

For a good long stretch, I stayed loyal to the Nokia 3390 gold brick. Bought replacements on eBay when Nokia stopped making them (yes, children, the early cell phones were not sturdy and if you dropped it or threw it or dipped it water, there were no cell phone repair places to go, or bags of rice for drying out your phone.) I switched only when I bought my first iPhone, which was a marvel: My iPod, my phone, and text messages… all in one place? What kind of dark magic was this? Voicemail you could listen to – wait for it – out of order? Yes, kids, 20 years ago, before the wonder that is Visual Voicemail, you had to listen to your messages in the order you received them and make a decision, right then in there, whether you wanted to save or delete the message. It was a lot of pressure, and I credit this for a lot of bad decisions many of us made in the early aughts.

A phone in a wooden box
This was the first phone I remember. Yes, it did look like it was in a coffin.

And now, many, many iPhones and many, many dollars later, here we are. From my simple beginnings with that phone-in-a-coffi) to me trying to decide if I want to buy Apple Care that costs more than every phone my family owned from 1972-1998 *put together*, plus the very real struggle of trying to decide if I want the phone with two camera lenses or three, or whether I’ll need that extra four hours of battery time, and then – and then – when the USPS leaves the most expensive five-inch package I’ll get all year in plain view on my front patio, and I get an email that my new phone has arrived and I rush home to get it before someone swipes it because the delivery driver couldn’t be bothered to stuff it under the door mat because thieves never look *there*, and I rip open the package, the first thing I will do is swear because it has the wrong USB connector for literally every single power block we have in the house. The next thing I will do is try and figure out how the hell to work the phone without a home button, which wasn’t even a thing a few years ago and honestly, Douglas Adams was right when he suggested maybe we never should have come down out of the trees.