Sunday, January 27, 2008

Party Line

Telephone party line services

By Susan Orlean.

The New Yorker, Dec 16, 2002

If you're one of those people who have three phone lines at home, plus a pager, plus a CDMA trimode cell phone with a Web browser and SMS, and you still want to upgrade your telecommunication system, you should meet Pat and Jim Bannick. Better yet, you should give them a call. Chances are they won't be on the phone.

"We're not really phone people," Pat said when I called her the other day at her home, in Dimondale, Michigan. "By the way, I couldn't believe Jim answered when you called. He never answers the phone. Once, I bought him one of those nice phones that you can walk around with--"

"A cell phone?"

"Yes, I think that's it. The kind so you don't need a long cord on it?"

"Oh, you mean a cordless phone?"

"That's right. The kind without a cord. Anyway, a while ago I got Jim one of those, but he wouldn't even look at it, so I ended up returning it."

The Bannicks are among the last people in the state of Michigan, and possibly in the entire known universe, who still have their telephone service on a party line. A party line is not a current telecommunications option. SBC Ameritech, the Bannicks' phone company, has only a handful of them left, all of them in Michigan. (The Nevada division took its last party line out of service in 2001; the Southwestern Bell division shut down its last one in 1996; and Pacific Bell took all but one of its party lines out of service in 1997.)

Party lines are not to be confused with chat lines, party planners, or escort services: they are a prehistoric phone technology of copper-loop circuits that can be shared by as many as twenty telephones in separate locations, predating by several decades such advancements as three-way conferencing and the quack-ringing Mallard Duck Phone. On a typical party line, all the phones in all the houses sharing the line have the same phone number, and all the phones in all the houses ring whenever a call comes in for any one of them. Each household would be assigned a distinctive ring, so you could tell if the bell was tolling for you or for another one of the houses on your line. "Ours was a three-ringer," Pat said. "Or was it first a two-ringer? No, I think it was a three-ringer, and then we were a two-ringer."

"What year did you get your phone?"

"It was 1955," Pat said. "It was the year that we built the house."

"1955? That was the year Mary L. Kayes, of Dutchess County, New York, was convicted of refusing to yield her party line to someone wanting to report a fire."

"My goodness."

"What was it like sharing a phone?"

"Well, honestly, it was awful. We'd never get to use the phone, because someone was always on it. Plus, the phone rang and rang and rang all the time, since you had ten families sharing it. We did get into counting the rings, though. You'd hear the phone and you'd stop and wait and count to see if it was for you. That was kind of fun."

"Did you know that in 1950 three-quarters of all the phone service in the United States was by party line?"

"No," Pat said.

"Pat, can you hold on a minute? I've got a call on my other line."

"I suppose so."

"O.K., I'm back. Sorry. So you were saying it was hard to share the phone."

"Well, it was a pain. When we were on a ten-party line, you could hardly get a word in. And whenever we would pick up the phone to use it there would already be someone on it. We would pick up the receiver and hear voices--"

"I'm sorry, I have another call again. Can you hold for one second?"

"I guess so."

"O.K., I'm back. So you were saying you'd pick up the phone and listen sometimes."

"Sure," Pat said. "I wouldn't listen a long time, just for a minute or so. But the same thing would happen to us. We'd be on a call and suddenly someone would pick it up and hang up a bunch of times, so there would be click-click-clicking the whole time you were on the phone. This one lady would listen for a long time before she'd hang up."

"Did people observe any kind of etiquette about party lines? Did they observe the Emily Post suggestion that if you share a party line and you have an emergency, you should pick up the phone and first say 'Emergency' in a loud voice and then say 'Our barn is on fire'?"

"No, nothing special like that," Pat said.

"Did you know who any of the other people on your line were?"

"We called once and tried to find out who they were, but the phone company wouldn't tell us. We could tell that a lot of the families we shared the line with had teen-agers. We were getting pretty disgusted, because they would never get off the phone. Sometimes we'd have to make an important call and they'd be on for ages, and finally we'd pick up the phone and say, 'Can you please just get off for five minutes and let us make the call, and then you can have the phone back?' And usually they'd say no. This one lady in particular, she would say, 'Well, I can't get off. I'm in the middle of a long-distance call.' "

"You said that the number of people on the line went from ten to four or five?"

"In the sixties or seventies, we were down to sharing with just four other families. Then it was just two, and then finally just one. Now we have a party line, but we're on it all by ourselves. Every once in a while, the phone company--it used to be Michigan Bell, but now it's Ameritech, I think--the phone company calls us and says, 'Well, guess what, we can give you a nice new line of your own,' but we tell them we don't want it! This is fine for us. And it's cheap. We pay fifteen dollars a month and that's it. We can't have an answering machine or anything on it, for some reason, but that doesn't really matter. The only problem we have isn't with the party line; it's with our phone. We have a rotary phone and I don't know what to do when you get these recordings saying, 'Push this number, push that button.' We don't have any buttons. When I really need to use a Touch-Tone, I go to my mother's. She's ninety years old, but she has a Touch-Tone."

"How many phones do you have?"

"Are you kidding? Just one."

This was when Jim got on.

"I don't really know why we got a phone to begin with," he said. "I think Pat wanted one. I didn't grow up with a telephone. The first time I ever used one was after I graduated from high school. I'm seventy-three, and I grew up without electricity or running water or even a refrigerator, and certainly without a phone."

"Do you use the phone now?"

"I have a need occasionally."

"And what kind of equipment do you have now?"

"We used to have a black one, I believe, and now we have an ivory one."

Jim then recounted the incident of the telephone without a cord with some discomfort. "I think Pat tried one of those touch phones or wireless phones," he said. "I don't know where she secured it, but I think she took it back."

Pat is more open-minded. "I was with my sister a while ago, and while we drove around she used her cell phone in the car, and it was great," she said, after Jim had turned the equipment back over to her. "The trouble is, if I had a cell phone, I'd probably call people."

"Do you wish you'd kept the phone without the cord?"

"Yes, definitely. See, I thought it would be nice to have when Jim's out in the garage working, and it's time for dinner, and I have to scream and yell like a banshee to let him know that dinner's ready. I thought if he had the phone I could just call him."

"So are you still screaming and yelling?"

"No, we've got something better now," Pat said. "We just installed a really nice dinner bell."

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