In Fowler we had two phones in the house, one upstairs and one downstairs. Since the one upstairs was in my parents’ room – a room which I really only entered twice in 13 years – really we had one phone. For ten kids. And that one phone sat at the far end of the kitchen table against the wall, and if you wanted a private conversation the cord was long enough that you could take it into the family room, sit on the top step, shut the door behind you, and no one in the kitchen would hear.
It wasn’t a comfortable perch there on the top step, but it was worth it for the relative quiet. The family room used to be a garage that my dad and brothers converted into living space. It wasn’t hooked onto the furnace so it didn’t have heat. Not that the rest of that house was balmy, given the cost of heating oil and the shape of the house (my bedroom window would often have ice on the pane in the morning), but the living room was especially cold. We used it for cold storage in the winter months, putting things there that didn’t need freezing, necessarily, but it was at least as cold as the fridge. I never thought anything about it as a kid – you could bundle up in a few sweaters, stretch the phone cord and go out there for a personal conversation.
Fowler only had one phone exchange, 884, so all you had to do to memorize your friends’ phone numbers was remember the last four digits. I still remember my friends’ numbers – Susan and Doug and Alan and Eugene and Bill – all these years later I could dial them all. Indiana only had three area codes then and we were in the one with Lafayette and Indianapolis, but the dentist and some of my friends were in the 219 area code which started in Earl Park just north of us, and calling them was strictly verboten. The other towns in the county all had one exchange as well - Boswell was 869, Oxford was 385, Otterbein was 583. They were all local calls, and they were all free and unlimited, and I was on the phone a lot. Hours and hours. And there was no call waiting, it was just busy until someone hung up.
Sharing anything ten ways isn’t easy, and while at any given time it was more likely to be 8 or 7 since Ray was in the Army and Dave was in Illinois and Therese was down in Texas, it still presented logistical challenges. I got to be on the phone a lot, and most of my friends were local calls since I was from Benton County, so I never got yelled at for the duration of my calls. There were some conversations about polite phone conversation (didn’t matter if your friend’s parents told you to call them Gene and Myrtle, you didn’t over the phone) and some boundaries (never call anyone after 9 PM, no calls during dinner), but pretty much I had free reign. My older siblings resented some of the latitude that I got, and I can understand it – in this I was unquestionably spoiled – but what was I supposed to do, tell ma to kick me off the phone? Not likely. Looking back I’m most surprised by the indulgence of my two sisters, four and five years older. Why did they put up with it? I don’t remember them yelling at me for I, but then they were great to me all the time growing up. My older brothers were rough, but my sisters were really amazing.
At the end of 6th grade we moved from that sprawling two story farm house in the country to what was to my eyes a very modern one story ranch house with a basement in the city. We had a phone in the kitchen, a dark brown slimline model that had a truly amazing cord. Because the base of the phone was mounted to the wall, the only way to have a private conversation was to stretch the cord long enough to get to the basement stairs five feet away – and then down to the third one so you could swing the door shut. In warmer months you could take it other direction, through the living room six feet to the front door where you could sit on the porch and have some privacy. I don’t know what that cord was made of but it was remarkable. It never broke despite the stretching, despite the flipping and twirling as it was subjected structurally to some of the teenaged angst that it was carrying internally, despite the crushing by closed doors.
We did it so we could have some privacy. We wanted someplace we could talk without our conversations being overheard by our parents and siblings. (Overheard and remarked upon, which I remember as being particularly infuriating to one sister, perhaps because it destroyed the fiction that conversations held in common areas were to some extent private?) For me it was important to have a space where I could stretch mentally. I don’t remember any specific content from those conversations, just a general sense of talking about friends’ breakups, history fair projects, and plans for Friday nights, but I remember sitting on the step – in the cold living room in Fowler, in the gaudy yellow stairwell in town – treasuring my privacy.
I think of this sometimes when I sit next to someone on the train sharing the most intimate details of a relationship’s end, or when I, unwillingly, listen to a drama playing out for a coffee shop neighbor who is on the phone. I wonder – did people change because of the technology? Is that why there doesn’t seem to be a line between public and private lives? Since we no longer need to be tethered to the wall through a cord to a phone that, as Lewis Black as has said, “Was so big, if a puma was charging at me I could hit it over the head and kill it!” – since we can connect with anyone from anywhere and since our private conversations can now happen in public, has that been the impetus for this erosion? Or does privacy mean something different now? Maybe it’s simply that I am extrapolating too broadly from my own experience?
At the risk of being the guy that yells at those damn kids to get out of his yard, I miss privacy, mine and others. Maybe I just need to get them all a stretchy phone cord.