How Did We Survive With Just One Phone?

by Harry T. Roman

I have 4 phones now, two house lines and two cell phones. And I still don't care to talk for long periods of time. I do enough of that at work all day. Last thing I want to do is "yak, yak, yak" all night long. I could be sitting next to a ringing phone at home and not answer it. It's never for me anyway.

Today, people are talking while driving their cars. Kids are talking on cell phones between school classes. Folks wouldn't think of leaving home without a cell phone in their briefcase or pocketbook. Cell phones ring in restaurants, theaters, churches, and on airplanes. What is going on? Since when has communications become so indispensable? How about a little peace and quiet?

If I was a kid today, I sure wouldn't want my parents just a couple of push buttons away from calling me while playing with my friends-- or God forbid while on a date. Part of the mystique of growing up in Newark back in our day was being away from our parents and surviving on our own--- making independent decisions, and actually living with the results. Don't get me wrong, cell phones are a wonderful technological advance and a needed measure of safety in an emergency, but enough already with everyone cluttering the airwaves with gibberish.

Today’s control freak parents would have died in our age when we went out at 9:00 in the morning and came back for supper at 5:00. It was part of the survival process. You had to learn to be on your own. Sure we were out of earshot for hours at a time, but somehow we survived. We learned and adapted.

“Oh, but all those terrible people out there could hurt my baby!”

“Then do what we did.”

“What is that?”

“Put the bad people in jail and let them rot there.”


I miss my sturdy cloth cord connected, black NJ Bell phone with the rotary dial. That indestructible little tabletop machine made all sorts of interesting whirring noises, and had a ring that almost foretold the importance of the call. “It’s late and I’m ringing-this is bad news.”

Humboldt 5-3032, yes, that was my old phone number in Newark. Most phone exchange names came from the street where the phone company had installed the telephone dialing exchange building. Humboldt Street is down where Park Avenue meets Bloomfield Avenue--- a few blocks before where Broadway also ties into Bloomfield Avenue. Today, the telephone building still stands there, but the HU prefix is gone; and I miss it.

I thought those exchange names gave communications a nice panache, a certain ambiance....

"Hello operator......please connect me with Orange 6-5783."

“Central 9-7600 please.”

“Yes, I’d like Mapleshade 4-5589”

It’s got style, just like Glen Miller’s Pennsylvania 6-5000 song.

A voice on the phone when you dialed "O" for operator----remember that? Now you get some electronic sounds and a menu of numbers to push. I guess people are too expensive to have. Then the phone company (and other companies) talk to you about customer service. Service to me means I talk directly to someone…..anything else, “ain't” service.

Or for those long distance calls, several states away, you talked to the long distance operator and when she completed the call, she would call you back so you could talk to your party. Making a long distance call back in the 50s was serious business; and it was also very serious at the receiving end when the operator told you it was long distance at the other end. Those kinds of calls were far and few between.

How did we ever survive with just one phone in our 1950s homes? Telephone extensions for teen-agers.….back then…..certainly you have got to be kidding. If you wanted privacy, you went to a telephone booth in the local candy store, luncheonette, or pharmacy with a handful of nickels and dimes (remember those?), and whispered some words into your best girl’s ear.

Let's tune into my old Newark house, circa mid 1950s......

"Hey buster, what are you doing on the phone?''

"Oh...hi Dad...just talking to Lou about the big game tomorrow after school."

"Don't you have homework?"


"Are you done with it?"


"Then say 'Goobye Lou' and get cracking on it."

There were even party lines where neighbors shared a telephone line and you had to wait for someone to finish their call before the line was clear again. If someone had an emergency, they said so and the line became clear immediately. It was very different. Teen-agers somehow learned to survive under the circumstances, and actually became responsible adults.

Today kids get cell phones for their birthdays or special events. They even have their public and private lines. They haven’t been alive long enough to know that many people, let alone anyone important, but they have their own telephone persona.

There are so many cell phones they split my state into many area codes and dialing districts that to call my next door neighbor I have to use a different area code. Sometimes I think it is a plot to confuse me so someone can charge me more for my telephone service. I went from trust to distrust with the phone company. I don't understand it anymore.

Ever try to decipher your telephone bill? All those special charges and surcharges and rate changes with time of day. Give me a break. My old telephone bill had a list of the calls I made out of the area and a single amount to pay. They even threw in the very much missed Bell News....a small monthly little pamphlet that gave some interesting facts about New Jersey. How many of you remember that little piece of literature?

Now all I get is higher phone rates and more paper that I cannot understand. I need to select my long-lines carrier too. Just put my damn phone call through, or maybe you want me to tell you which colored wires to connect together too?

If you had trouble with your telephone service, you called the phone company and they came and fixed it. Now someone has to come to your house, make an appointment, do a check on the wiring. In all the times I have had phone trouble, every single time it was the outside wiring or on the poles. What's going to go wrong inside my house with the wiring? I don't chew on the lines and neither does my dog. Beside, don’t I own the inside wires now?

Like Jackie Mason says….”How does it work…….nobody knows.”


“Hey Harry, what’s your cell phone number? I’ll call you tonight.”

“Not on your *%$#&&@ life! You get lonely tonight, talk to your wife.”

“But what if something important happens or an emergency, how will folks get in touch with you?”

“If it’s that important, someone in an official looking uniform will show up at the door.”

“I’ll bet you wouldn’t even answer the door.”

“See how smart you are.”


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