A phone number was good for a lifetime

February 15, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

MY BROTHER Eddie has a rule regarding telephones: The more cell phones, beepers and lines a person possesses and professes to use, the less likely you are to reach them. I have yet to succumb to the cell phone, but alas, I am guilty of e-mail at home and at work. And when the city desk here heats up, it is nothing to field a dozen phone calls, then return from lunch to find the red blinker light flashing with six recorded messages. And, most evenings, there are four or five voice mails when I get home.

What a simpler world it was in the glory days of the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., where a second line in a home was a rarity.

I recently acquired a 1945 phone directory, the variety used by C&P telephone operators to locate numbers by address. It arrived one evening this week; I stayed up to nearly midnight lost in the world of those euphonious exchanges, the Riversides, Gilmors, Cliftons, Souths, Universities, Lafayettes and Calverts of the spinning rotary dial. Those old wires sung with personality.

The exchanges fell out of favor, but they are around. For example, then as today, my family remain stalwart Tuxedos. Many of our neighbors were Chesapeakes, Hopkinses and Belmonts. And, in the world of little-changing Baltimore, I am amazed at the number of home phone lines that have not changed. And there are certain numbers I will never forget: Hutzler's department store, Saratoga 1234, Hochschild's, Lexington 1111, or the Homewood Apartments, Belmont 2500.

And how I relied upon those indispensable and cheerful newspaper telephone operators who could summon a city editor or reporter from a barstool at Burke's Tavern with the discretion of a State Department diplomat. (I was always fascinated by some special in-house hookups we had at the old News American (Plaza 1212)). We had dedicated lines to all racetrack press boxes, New York, Washington and our competitor, The Sun. Somewhere I learned the resourceful operators at the old Hotel Emerson (Plaza 4400) had wires directly to the great old Thomas & Thompson drug store (Saratoga 2960) so bellboys could cross Baltimore Street and fetch cures for hungover guests.

I'll also salute those incredibly helpful and professional C&P employees, the excellent operators who placed the long-distance calls and found scarce numbers, the guys who installed the phones that never broke and the Western Electric people down at Point Breeze who made the never-fail parts.

I often observe the public chatterers who are glued to cell phones and talk away about topics I consider a trifle private. Last week, for example, while in a line at BWI Airport, I could not help hear a young chap's heartfelt description of his father's declining medical condition and impending death from cancer as he prepared to fly home for the final visit.

We used to observe a kind of phone privacy. Calls were often considered confidential; I well recall the number of persons who would slip off to a phone booth at the old Guilford Pharmacy (University 1609) for a conversation without mother, father, kid sister and maiden aunt eavesdropping. My old phone book shows just how many people in one family shared the same number. It is not unusual to see cousins and unmarried family members recorded under one street address, an indication of the multi-generational way we lived.

While I'm on that topic, could there be anything more telephonically medieval than a party line? How well I recall my grandmother complaining that her line was all tied up by a chatty neighbor who lived on East Cross Street.

Let us not forget that phone lines were once a fairly precious commodity and there just were not many private lines. This meant, of course, going through switchboard and getting to know the personality of the person who routinely answered the phone. And one of my favorites recently died. She was Sister Monica, an elderly Visitation nun born in Scotland. When I rang her monastery, she replied in a rich brogue, "Hold the wire."

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