Quite some time ago I was a young child living with my parents in a four room apartment, on the sixth floor of a tenement in East Harlem. I was perhaps four or five years of age, but I remember clearly the excitement on the day we got our first telephone.,
For a short period of time we had what was called a party line, meaning two, three, or four families shared one line even though the phones were in different homes. I don’t know why the phone company offered this service. Perhaps they didn’t have the equipment to issue each home their own line, or it was a cheaper for the consumer. In any case it was a source of many hours of entertainment, and not a few arguments among strangers.
In today’s world where everyone, even children, has one, two, three or more phones, or other means of communication, it’s difficult to imagine people having a party line.
You didn’t need to watch soap operas in order to learn about the dramatics of others. All you needed to do was lift that receiver very quietly and listen in. On occasion you might even offer advice on a difficulty being discussed, if you didn’t mind getting found out that you were eavesdropping. There was an art to listening in. Depending on who was sharing your line they might be thankful or really, really mad for your joining in their conversation and tell you off in spades.
Sometimes people were not considerate and would not monitor the time they were using the phone. They would visit and gossip with friends for long periods and tie up the line so that others who shared could not receive or make a call. I am reminded of one time when my mother was good and fed up. She blasted the people using the phone because she could not make a call for several hours. Naturally, this is an emergency, was an excuse you could only use once or perhaps twice. Remember, the other party could always pick up and listen in.
Shortly after this episode we got a single line. My mother didn’t let any grass grow under her feet. We got that private line as soon as it was made available. Now she was able to call Her girlfriend, Mary Amondo, and gossip to her heart’s content. What luxury!
While in some ways I would like to revisit a simpler life, going back to the days of a party line is not one of them.
Happy Mother’s Day In Heaven, Mom. Call me in my dreams. Its a private line.