No time. No weather. No fair.

by oldschoolrules

My first experience with dialing — yes, folks, rotary dialing — a telephone number was when I was about 5.  My parents taught me how to call a) the Operator, for emergencies and long distance, by dialing the ‘0’ (zero); b) the correct time, at TIme 4-2525; and the weather forecast, at WEather 6-1212.  That was in the mid 1950s, when Washington DC was a much smaller, more neighborly place, despite plenty of Old School Rules against loving thy neighbor.

The time and the weather became, for me, an unchanging, daily reality check.  The familiar voice at TI 4-2525 would say, “At the tone, the time will be _____ and ___ seconds… beep.”  The message was repeated every 10 seconds, just like … well … clockwork (what else could I say?).

The weather lady at WE 6-1212 would say, “This is the latest weather forecast for Washington and vicinity.”  It was based on her report in the evening, after dinner, that we would decide what to wear to school the next day; the following morning I’d check back to make certain nothing had changed dramatically enough to change my wardrobe choices.  In the winter, if it snowed, the call was followed up by listening intently to the voices of Harden & Weaver coming from my parents’ radio, to learn whether the schools were closed.

As far as I know, those calls weren’t charged, and I can’t remember an ad tag of any kind.  The local Bell phone company was C&P Telephone, named after one of DC’s Rivers, the Potomac, and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows to before dissolving into the Atlantic Ocean.  I don’t know why the Anacostia River didn’t get its due — I think Anacostia and Potomac sounds just fine, even if the monogram might be confused with that of a grocery store chain– but I do know that sometime in the 1980s, C&P got swallowed up by a company that later morphed into Verizon.

I recall it had something to do with “Ma” Bell’s children growing up and leaving home to prevent monopolies, but if you ask me, Verizon is pretty monopolistic, and, unlike C&P, not very user-friendly, as phone companies go.  I receive bills, ads, and offers for the ever-popular “bundling” of services for my land-line, cell phone and internet.  They take plenty of credit — adding a “welcome to…”, “thank you for calling…”, or “brought to you by…” Verizon branding that took up a few seconds of my time before I could hear what time it was or whether it would be partly cloudy with a chance of rain.

Verizon’s billing discrepancies — which somehow always end in their favor, not mine — are handled, not by a local person with a high school education learning and using valuable skills to earn a decent living while performing a valuable public service, but by someone in Mumbai or Delhi, who will probably build a resume and savings account in India that will support relocation to a city near you.  Mind you, I don’t fault anyone from seizing the opportunity to work for the yankee dollar, but until I see a reversal of fortunes for the many hard-working Americans who are un- or under-employed, I won’t accept calls from places I don’t know anyone.

I still have — in it’s original envelope a shiny dime encased in a card with an apology from C&P for the 10 cents I lost in a public phone. Yep, a public phone, in a booth that actually got cleaned on a regular basis (windows polished, receiver wiped down, cigarette butts swept up) by — you guessed it — a local person with a j-o-b.  You could find one on most corners of downtown, and several conveniently placed in the outlying neighborhoods of DC.  They were, in some ways, a predecessor of the ubiquitous cell phone, only you couldn’t get a ticket for using one, unless you drove into it.

  • A real, working phone booth in West Virginia.

    Phone booths were also known as the place Clark Kent changed into his cape and became Superman.

    It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a suited reporter turning into a caped crusader!

    One of the last booths in DC was on the top floor of what is now the John A. Wilson District Building.  It was left there, in the cramped and noisy press room, by the Evening Star, after that daily’s demise.  It continued to work until it’s removal when the building was renovated a decade or so ago.  And let’s not forget some wonderful idioms related to the public phone:  snitching was “dropping a dime” on someone; and my father would answer the phone at his office, after his secretary Miss Vickeroy announced my call, with, “It’s your dime, start talking.”

    I could recount problems I and others have with the current phone company, but it wouldn’t make them any less omnipotent, nor would it bring back the thousands of jobs that left the US or the sounds of ringing, dialing and on-off busy signal beeping that plays in my mind’s ear.  The booths are virtually extinct today, a fact that may affect lots of powerless customers and former employees,  and explain the person standing next to you talking to an invisible friend, or texting her BFF’s old BF; but even that is something I can adjust to.

    The problem I’m struggling with is more personal.  It’s about unnecessary change for the sake of maximized profits.  For years, my childhood friend Laurel has bemoaned the fact that telephone prefixes no longer have names.  When we were growing up, there were HObart 2 people, and RAndolph 6 (and later RA 3); there were TUckermans (2) and TAylors (9) and DUponts (6) and FEderals (3 in Georgetown, 6 elsewhere).  You knew that a LAwrence (6) was in Northeast, and a LIncoln (4-1212) would get you a cab.

    When I moved about 18 months ago, I was able to get the same phone number that my family had for 50 years, which was, I understand, a virtually impossible feat (no, I won’t tell you how I managed to keep the number out of rotation for the five years between selling my family house and returning to a neighborhood that uses the same phone prefix; a girl has to have some secrets, after all).

    I’ve gotten used to remembering a string of numbers with no names, and using the @ sign for something other than a money transaction.  I’ve gotten used to having letters dissed with the label “snail mail,” and adhesive stamps replacing the ones you got to lick — remember writing SWAK (sealed with a kiss) on the back of an envelope, long before texting reduced a million emotions and messages to initials?

    But the fact is I miss the Old School Rules regarding communicating, in which a “face time” visit was better than a phone call, and a letter was something one looked forward to receiving and answering, with correctly spelled and carefully thought out words, hand-written, preferably in Shaeffer Blue-Black ink (after all, this was when every pupil was graded on Penmanship, which carried at least as much weight as Deportment on a report card).

    A personal note will always mean more to me than an “emailed”, “texted,” “facebooked” or “tweeted” message.  And the idea of people “dating” someone they only know as a cyberspatial snapshot with a “profile” gives me the willies.  I learned to write because I had to send thank-you notes for every holiday or birthday gift received from a relative or family friend, before I could enjoy using, eating, playing with or wearing the present.  I had to express, in my own words, what the gift and the sender meant to me.  I had to follow the Old School Rules that say, “It’s the thought that counts,” by thinking about words and how to use them.  It wasn’t until decades later that I realized technology had taken away my ability to pause and use restraint of pen and tongue, in exchange for a “send” button I could hit now and regret later.

    But what I’m missing now, albeit a couple of months ahead of time, is the result of a New School Rules travesty — the profits-before-people rule that says, “the one with the gold makes the rules” instead of the Golden Rule — of epic proportions.  Okay, maybe not epic; it’s not the end of the world, but it certainly changes mine for the worse.

    It has been addressed by only one person I know of.  Bless his heart, Washington Post local columnist John Kelly feels as cheated as I do by the announcement that now precedes the WE6 and TI4 services we’ve been able to count on for more than half a century.  Here’s what we now get, instead of the information we’ve grown accustomed to getting from our phone (in a grouchy old man’s voice):

    “Effective June 1st, 2011, Verizon will no longer offer time of day and weather forecast services.” Bummer.  I hope the folks that made this awful decision live the rest of their days under the weather, in an endless, parade-drenching winter where “have a nice day” never happens and there are no silver linings … just clouds.  No time?  No weather?  No fair!