Bell's peal used to call folks for some face-to-face chatter

May 01, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

AN AMTRAK conductor won my praise last Sunday as he walked the train's aisles, and, in an authoritative voice, asked that riders be considerate of their fellow passengers by turning off their cell phone ringers and, while talking, keeping their voices low.

He repeated his firm request several times, perhaps infusing some guilt into the magpie chatterers who were driving me crazy with inane small talk from the minute the train eased out under the Calvert Street Bridge until it stopped in New York.

Since I don't own a cell phone, I am no fan of them. But there is one bell sound, a sound from my childhood, I do like. Sitting around the other night with friends, we started talking about it.

The bell that called our house to attention was the electric doorbell - not a chime, but a big brass ringer affixed to a wall in a hall we sometimes called the music room (because of an upright Steiff piano never played with any frequency and certainly no real talent).

There were 12 of us around the dinner table, so the front bell (there was never one at either of the two back doors) was a social call to attention.

We always had a lot of people coming and going. This collection of souls made for first-class people theater, and the bell summoned you to your seat. There was no mistaking this call. It was loud because a hearing loss ran in my family. My Uncle Jacques, who kept the bell in repair, was a practical Poly graduate and engineer.

The essential ring was three short blasts. That was the signature ring of the estimable Dorothy Croswell, a social worker who lived next door and became part of the family. A while after she moved to the Homewood Apartments in 1961, her triple ring was inherited by the neighbor to the south, Julia Hoopper, who then owned it as her signal.

A Thursday afternoon ring about 2:30 indicated Mr. Di- Blase, an aide to the amazing Johnny Nichols, the Cross Street Market's maestro of fresh fish, oysters, shrimp and crab, whose spot in the old market is now occupied by Tommy Chagouris' empire. We had a standing seafood order.

Come Friday morning, the oysters would padded down (prepared for frying) before I was up for breakfast. So too the shrimp would be steamed in vinegar. Later in the day, the doorbell would ring again. Many times it would be a friend like Bertha Hollander, who liked to drop by for some shrimp and a piece of fish.

All this underscores my real point, which is that the doorbell used to be an accessory of a pleasant social convention.

When we lived happily in cities, without much fear on the street, family and friends never felt the need of an invitation. They just rang the bell and a happy time followed.

We weren't all driving around all the time. Chances were that whether you were at home or on vacation, your schedule and itinerary was well known in advance. Those who regularly rang the bell in Baltimore knew our whereabouts in Rehoboth and showed up there, too. We wouldn't have had it any other way.

That said, I observe at how little my own doorbell gets used these days. Maybe by the pizza delivery guy. And I am amazed at how many people would prefer to dial their cell phones instead of pushing the button.

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