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Whittling Away: Cellphones


By Dick Brooks

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Dick Brooks.

How did civilization exist before the invention of the cell phone? 

Being of an age where I was born BC (Before Cellular) and still having enough of my faculties to remember the distant past, although yesterday sometimes gives me problems, I spent a little ponder time considering this weighty question.

In my youth, we had telephones. They were heavy, came in any color you wanted as long as it was black, and had all the verve and style of an overweight toad. 

You looked at it and knew it was a telephone, there was a certain amount of comfort to be taken from that. They all made the same sound, an urgent but not unpleasant jangling of bells, ring-ring-ring. Everybody knew it was the telephone ringing because it was the sound that telephones made. 

The telephone was simple to use, you picked up the part that looked kind of like a dumbbell, put the round part without the cord against your ear and talked into the other round part. You waited a couple of seconds and along came this pleasant lady’s voice that said, “Number please.” You told her the number you wanted and she hooked you up. It was a nice human touch. 

The telephone could be used for emergencies — you just told the nice lady what the problem was and she’d send help. It could be used for education, we had a party line with four other families using it also, and whenever you got bored you could listen in to what was going on in your neighbor’s world. Party lines were the precursors to today’s reality shows. 

If you were away from home, there were pay telephones on almost every corner and in most public areas that you could use for a dime.

The operator was the first to go, her cheery voice replaced by the dial tone. Not as pleasant but still fun, it added a little more responsibility to your communication process.

The phone (as the in-crowd started to call it) went downhill rapidly without the operator. It started being offered in colors; the Princess Phone appeared and the designers went wild. Football phones, Mickey Mouse phones, phones in the shape of cars all appeared about the same time that the dials changed from spinners to pokers. The phones lost weight and finally they lost their identity completely and started making this irritating buzzing noise instead of ringing properly. You had to look for the phone in a room — it could be anything. You couldn’t even find the cord and track it to what might be the phone because the cord disappeared.

Then the first cellphones started to appear. You could talk anywhere, it was marvelous, what a convenience and the battery pack only weighed 20 or so pounds.

The cellphone morphed quickly into its present-day form. I had not fully realized the need humans had for constant communication back in the old black phone days. Everywhere you look, people are talking to their hands. In any mall, fully half of the folks you see are talking, usually to the other half of the people there. 

I don’t remember the last play/meeting/movie/concert or church service I went to that wasn’t interrupted by the buzzing, clanging, animal sounds, classical music, hip hop, noises made by these annoying objects.

At the risk of seeming old-fashioned or grouchy, I would like to make the following suggestion — hang up already! These things are frequently rude, often dangerous — especially on the highway — annoying, and have you looked in a mirror while you’re using the thing? I don’t think there’s anything that looks any dumber than a professional-looking person walking around the supermarket with a headset on talking — they remind me of an airline pilot who’s lost their plane. These are the same folks who have a water bottle constantly affixed to the end of one of their arms. Hydrating and instant communication are now a way of life.

I shouldn’t throw too many stones, I have to admit that I have a cellphone and so does The Queen. Mine is black and you can’t do many tricks with it. I leave it turned off most of the time and usually only use it for outgoing calls. I could replace it with the use of a pay phone but the last time I saw a pay phone was in a museum where it was part of a display. 

The Queen has taken to hers and uses it frequently, often calling me from the driveway to remind me of a task she’d like me to perform during her absence.

I guess it’s just another of those things I’ll have to live with, but I really do miss those old phones. Does anyone know where I can get a ringtone for my cellphone that goes, “ring-ring-ring?”

Thought for the week — NASA sent man into space and quickly learned that ballpoint pens didn’t work in space. The government then spent millions of dollars and spent years developing a pen that could write in any position and under any condition. The Russians used a pencil.  

Until next week, may you and yours be happy and well.

Reach columnist Dick Brooks at

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