The Bell Tolls

Years ago, our phone died. It was a catastrophe.

Well, it wasn’t dead, exactly — it just didn’t ring. So, we could make calls, but we couldn’t receive them. The phone stayed stubbornly, maddeningly silent even when calls came in.

Important calls! Critical calls! Life-changing, career-altering calls! Our lives were being ruined!

The telephone repair guy couldn’t show up for another couple of days, and it was driving us crazy. My husband took to yanking the phone off the hook and answering it at random, ring-free times. Just in case.

“Hello!” he kept saying. “Hello!?”

Nobody was ever there, of course. He was speaking into some kind of existential void. It was enough to make nihilists out of both of us.

This had to have been before we got an answering machine. Yes! We were pioneers. We lived — or tried to — in the grim and hardscrabble days before answering machines and voice mail and everything that makes life worth living. Even when the phone rang correctly, you were always sure you’d just missed a very important phone call that would never come again. If only you’d been there earlier!

Eventually, our phone got fixed and our lives were salvaged. The phone rang or it didn’t ring, but at least it worked.

I think about this brouhaha in our earlier lives because everything has changed so completely. We now hate what we’ve learned to call our land line. It rings and we glare at it.

These days, I would never, ever answer said land line without first checking the caller i.d. The few times the phone rings, it’s almost always some anonymous number from another zip code, from one charity or another. If it’s important, we figure, the caller will leave a voice mail. It’s almost never important.

So — why keep a land line? We both have cell phones and email addresses that are used more frequently and are easily accessible. We don’t really need our land line. I know that — but I can’t quite cut the cord, even if the damned thing is cordless.

I guess it’s some ridiculous clinging to the past on my part (as my husband very unhelpfully likes to point out). Once, I would have broken my neck to get to a ringing phone; once, its failure to ring was a disaster; once, this device was our lifeline.

Sure, the “once” I’m talking about was 30 years ago — but that’s not exactly a century, is it? And 30 years isn’t as long as it used to be, I am discovering.

Thirty years ago. That’s about the same time my husband and I used to talk about our tiny stock portfolio. At least we had the AT&T stock from his grandmother, my husband used to say. We’d never sell it, of course. AT&T was one of those timeless investments.

It was also around the time when my husband worked one summer as a postman. It was only a summer job during college and he didn’t want to spend his life delivering mail — but, hey. Wasn’t it nice to know the postal service would always be there if everything else failed?

The land line rings again and again this morning. An anonymous call, then another call and a voice mail. It’s from my dentist’s office, where I’m supposed to show up tomorrow.

I mark down the appointment and think about attrition and the passage of time. Maybe the three of us — me, my teeth, and my land line — should just stick together. At the rate we’re all becoming obsolete, the existential void must be getting pretty crowded these days.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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14 comments… add one
  • We still have a semi-landline. It is a VOIP line, so actually goes over the internet. And it rings over to my man’s mobile phone as well, if we want.

  • Good times those were when the landline meant an important or at least semi-desirable calls. Thirty years ago telemarketers didn’t exist and phones were much more pleasant.

  • Marsha Canright Link

    I don’t have a landline anymore but I do have my telephone. It’s not connected to anything and it can’t ring. And still it sits in the house, an artifact of another day and many memories. On that phone, I told my grandmother: “I’m coming tomorrow gram; I love you.” And she died that night, really. And to David’s parents, first time grandparents: “She weighs eight pounds and she is BEAUTIFUL and I didn’t even have to stay overnight.” Remember the phone company used to OWN those sturdy black rotary dial telephones that lived in the heart of every modern Texas household. Later at UT, there was only one phone on either end of the Kinsolving hallway. How could that be? How did we manage? When I became an apartment dweller, the phone was the only thing that stayed behind when you moved on. You had to turn it in or they picked it up. I don’t remember which. When I look at my telephone (it’s yellow), I think about how fast technology is speeding up and wonder if my daughter will frame her iphone some day. Just for the memories.

  • merr Link

    We still have our land line, but rarely use it. The mobile is so much easier. Still holding on, though. Not quite ready to release it…maybe sometime though.

  • Love this. I still have teeth and also a land line. Let’s hold out together.

  • Cynthia Link

    We got rid of ours in 2010 when we retired and moved. I’ll admit it scared me to death. We survived. I’m very happy without one. Go for it!

  • Ah memories! We have a landline for power outages when cells can’t be recharged or towers aren’t powered or whatever happens when they go out. We don’t answer it though. That’s what answering machines are for. So far this week we missed John from the shipping department (telemarketer scam), the FBI notifying us that there are breakins and we need a security system and our very last chance to upgrade our credit card. I remember as a teenager spending hours on the phone that was tethered to the wall.

  • You have touched a nerve. We are among the last to resist cell phones. Although I still believe that soon it will be proven that cell phones held to the side of the head can cause brain cancer, I am about to capitulate. Why? We are on vacation in Sweden where EVERYONE has a cell phone, even little kids. My husband´s Swedish cell was cut two days after we arrived, because it had not been used in a year. It took us days to figure out how to get a new number for him. Then it turned out we cannot receive calls from the USA. So, the next time I travel to Sweden, I will need an iPhone.

  • With ZERO cell service in our not-that-remote mountain valley, we too maintain a landline, but other than business calls (often lengthy conference calls spent on mute), it almost never rings. It’s kind of sad, but then when it does ring, I’m often annoyed. Go figure.

  • I’m archaic, I guess. My land line is the phone I use. My cell is essentially for emergencies or occasionally touching base while I’m out. I loathe talking to people on cell phones — “Can you hear me now?”

  • We live out in the country where our landline is still connected to our internet, so they have us. At least for the moment.

  • I have both, still, and recently changed my cell to a pay as you go carrier as I use it so little. like Kris Bordessa above, I’m not excited about speaking on cell phones. I live in an area where weather disruptions are common, too, so it’s good to have a land line — actually attached to the wall — which it works when power is out.

    but I suppose, as you point out so thoughtfully, that will all change with time as well…

  • We ditched our landline a couple years ago and have not missed it one bit. Nor the $30/mo. fee to have it. Of course, we spend way more money on having cell phones for all four of us, but that’s beside the point.

  • No one I know has a landline. But imagine how curious that I called my cell phone company cause of a hardware issue and, what do they say, “you need to call us from a landline so we can figure out what’s going on with your cell phone.” too funny.

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