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You're Wanted on the Telephone

Cell phones are fine for many things but some of us pine for our landlines and the long, leisurely chats they encouraged

By Elana Rabinowitz

"It sounds like someone is underwater," my friend says on the other end of my phone call.

"Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?" I repeat. But, as suspected, she cannot hear me now.

A teen girl talking on a corded landline telephone. Next Avenue
"When a phone rang, someone would answer and scream their name as if they were living in another ZIP code,"  |  Credit: Kateryna Hliznitsova

I invested in the landline as the accessory to my cell phone. There are times when I want a longer, more intimate conversation which simply can't be had while holding my Android in the palm of my hand. But still, talking on the phone today just doesn't seem as glamorous as it once was.

I remember in the movies, an elegant lady grabbing the receiver in one hand while holding her long cigarette in the other, pressing down a few times and saying silly things like, Operator get me Delta 35. And just like that, two souls became one.

That Landline Was My Lifeline

I can't imagine my youth without the use of my telephone, it was my lifeline. I can't tell you where I put my keys but I can rattle off the telephone number of every person I ever called. I even remember when you didn't need to put the area code first.

I can't imagine my youth without the use of my telephone, it was my lifeline.

There was a nice little pause when dialing someone's number – a time to gather your thoughts, perhaps if we had that today there would be fewer lamented messages. We would have taken the time to think about what we wanted to say in the seconds leading up to the connection and not hastily written a grammatically atrocious text that we would regret.

The first phone I dominated was a black rotary phone in my parents' bedroom. It was on my mother's side end table and since they both worked, I could spend hours gabbing with my BFF on what I could only imagine was absolutely nothing.

Long Talks and Laughter

When a phone rang, someone would answer and scream their name as if they were living in another ZIP code, usually repeating it two or three times and then, almost as if they were angry, screaming, "Telephone!" to summon the person being called.

But it was gospel, and I can't imagine what my youth would have been like without those connections. Long conversations, laughter. It was where I believe I developed my speaking and listening skills — both of which needed sharpening. Perhaps they always will.

Talking on the phone was much more pleasurable than answering it, because as the original family line you never knew what you were going to get. A total crapshoot that could stick you with relatives asking endless questions, family friends you did not remember, or acquaintances that found your number and recklessly called in an attempt to be your friend and you had no choice but to comply.

Even if you had nothing to say to them, you had to listen, you had to connect. These conversations surprised me most of all. The young adolescents with whom you thought you had nothing in common with could gab for almost an hour and then you'd see them the next day in school and you'd realize it was just the phone connection you had, it never really translated to IRL (modern texting shorthand for "in real life").

Plenty of Pranks

I dialed that phone to call telethons and WPLJ to try to win contests and even prank boys whom I had crushes on. They could never trace the call and there was some gratification in hearing their voice. Although they rarely answered the phone and you were forced to hear their parents annoyed that no one was on the other end.

Sometimes you'd have your girlfriends over and we'd lay on my parents' unmade bed and devise clever pranks.

We'd look up the last name Lipshitz in the phone book. Then call. My heart would stop.

"Hello, Mr. Lipshitz?"

"Yes, this is he."

"If your lip shitz what does your ass do?" and giggle and hang up.

I bet they changed their name to Levine after that.


If it weren't for the phone, I would have spent most of my youth watching TV. I was not a part of any sport or team — actually no one I knew was. Since I had to fend for myself for the majority of my youth, the phone was an IV that fed my prepubescent soul.

Elana's Answering Service

Soon my brother got a beige touch-tone phone he paid for out of his busboy salary. One day I answered it and unbeknownst to me it was an important call. I simply wrote down the message on a pink message pad and left it for him like those secretaries did on TV.

When (my brother) went to college, his room and the phone line became mine. All mine.

It turned out to be a job or something, and my brother said he would pay me a quarter for every call I answered. The original voice mail. I would run up those wooden stairs like an Olympic athlete when I heard the ring and soon had ample funds for candy and the like.

When he went to college, his room and the phone line became mine. All mine. And, luckily, I did not have to pay for it. Soon enough I'd spend entire afternoons catching up with friends. Camp friends that I only saw in the summer, friends that moved or went to other schools, and slowly boyfriends or guy friends that were shorter exchanges but palpable.

It was like working from home, it didn't matter where I lived, if my home was geographically undesirable, that phone always rang and always connected me to people I loved.

Charmless Cell Phones

Today I have a cell phone that most people give me static about. I refuse to buy an iPhone and thus am not always included in group chats or calls at all. It is like an Android speaks another language. Most days I don't even use it to call anyone — who can stand all those dropped calls?

So I text and sometimes they text me back and sometimes our phones can't talk to each other and sometimes I am ghosted. I usually leave any text unfulfilled and wanting more. Occasionally I will give in and FaceTime or Zoom but I hate looking at someone when I talk on the phone.

During the pandemic, a few close friends began to set up daily and weekly phone chats ... No time limit, and no excuses.

That feels unnatural to me still and something only reserved for "The Jetsons" cartoon. I am focused more on their face and less on the words. It was the sentences that were valued more than a glimpse at their room.

During the pandemic, a few close friends began to set up daily and weekly phone chats. Designated times to find a no-fault zone and just talk. No time limit, and no excuses. This was absolutely beautiful to me, like a grown-up version of those times on the rotary phone. Those conversations have diminished now.

Today most calls are either deliveries, someone needing a favor, or bored friends on long car rides who want to be entertained. And while the latter is nice, it isn't the same as something sitting perfectly still without anything else but a phone and a receiver and a friend to talk to you about absolutely nothing. That, in fact, was everything.

Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Good Housekeeping. She divides her time between Brooklyn and Germantown, New York, and is an Airbnb Superhost. Read More
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