From first phones to cell phones to phonies

OTIS KIDWELL BURGER | In the late 1920s, there was a wall telephone downstairs in my grandmother’s hallway next to the kitchen. You spun a dial and a voice said: “Number, please,” and you got a whole lot of other voices on a party line.

A couple of years later, my parents built a house on the Staten Island heights. It had a whole new kind of telephone shaped rather like a plant with a strong stem and a sort of blossom on the top to speak into and a little appendage like a wilted leaf hanging on one side to listen to. I was terrified by the disembodied voice.

The writer, who is now 95, as a young artist.

By the ’40s, we were living in another house with a more modern telephone and we teenagers often spent time listening to each other. Back then in the ’40s and ’50s, there were lots of public telephones. You could lock yourself in a booth and chat away as long as your change held out. But technology has long swept all of these away.

Then, fast-forward, and we had people walking on the street talking apparently to themselves. They did not have Tourette’s. They had cell phones. Now, even toddlers seem to have cell phones. However, some of us still have landline phones with a long cord and receiver that you can hold to your ear.

I have become more or less used to the telephone — though not to smart phones or computers — as a means of electronic communication, but not to how, nowadays, all phones can be used as a sort of pry bar to separate telephone holders from their bank accounts.

First there were Nigerians. They had gold and diamonds. If you just paid the taxes, they would get it into this country and share it with you.

Next came the announcement that I won $2 million from playing the lottery, and if I’d just send $800 to pay taxes, I would receive a cashier’s check. I have never played the lottery. Eventually, it was dropped to $1 million, then $500, and then vanished. Then they resurfaced with a $400 check. If I cashed it and sent them $200 of those dollars, I would receive several hundred thousand. So I figured if I cashed this, it would somehow give them access to my bank account, so I asked my bank and they wouldn’t tell me that but if I tried to cash that check, they said they would close my bank account, so I tore up the check.

Then there were the ones who said I’d done something terrible and the cops were on the way. I never did find out what I had to do to get rid of them. Then there were some fairly plausible ones who said they had shipments of fine wine and if I paid them money, they would keep the wine in a cellar and sell it when the market went up and send me the money. They even sent me pretty believable brochures describing this process.

Throughout all this there have been people calling me at all hours to ask me if I have pain in my back, arms, legs. I say, No. I did get into conversation with one who called four times one day and they said they were from MediCare and wanted my MediCare card. So I said I was legally blind, which I am, and so they said they wanted the last four numbers of my Social Security and I said I couldn’t remember. That did not discourage them completely, as I had several calls after that. But one day my finger slipped and I cut off the phone call. I have not heard from them since. I am waiting breathlessly for the next round of entertainment.

I have since heard about other lonely widows who have been entertained by charming men who, after several intimate phone calls, have said that, if the charming widow sent them money for their carfare or plane fare, they could meet.

And now I have also heard that the lonely elderly can have robots, including robot puppies, come and entertain them. This is just humanitarian aid, not a financial swindle, but I do wonder, at 95, what lonely old age in this world is coming to.

One Response to From first phones to cell phones to phonies

  1. Otis mentioned a new house on Staten Island. While the five boroughs had dial beginning in the 1920s, forty years later Staten Island still had operators in the HOneywood 6 and TOttenville 8 exchanges. The switchboards were in private houses. When dial service arrived in 1960, the two exchanges merged to become YUkon 4.

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