21.07.2015

The Rotary Telephone

Fuhgeddabout your fancy iPhone whatchamacallit, we’re hanging on the line for a classic

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg

You wish you could’ve lived in my times, you, little baby whose thumbs are now on a screen instead of in your mouth. Ours was a simpler time where our phone was always there but not omnipresent. Our phone didn’t control us. It didn’t divide us. Our phone brought us together.

“Seven-four-oh-one-five-one-nine, hello?”

That was me excitedly announcing our number up front after beating my brother in the race to answer the landline, a joy you may never have experienced if you're unfamiliar with the wonders of the rotary telephone. 

Gather round, children, and make yourselves comfortable, because I’m about to share a story with you that can’t be told via carefully curated emojis.

Actually, I’m not that much older than you, my family could’ve upgraded to a touch-tone and then a cordless unit, but because we were a household that didn’t replace anything until it was broken, the Bakelite rotary number perched on the little unit just off the passage near the front door was as much a part of the family as the several pets it outlived.

Ah yes, our beloved rotary telephone, Blackie, a beast you may have only seen in your picture books. Which is a shame as you’ll be unfamiliar with its satisfying weight. How you could pace up and down the passage extending the coiled cord to its full stretch without pulling the phone off the table. Likewise you wouldn’t have heard that pulse take the place of the tone, as you waited patiently for the dial to roll back to its reset, cursing numbers with zeroes in it as those took the longest to dial. 

Back in my day, squirt, phones weren’t something you hid from your significant other, it was shared by the family and as much a part of the home décor as the plastic fruit in the bowl on the kitchen table. And while our home featured a little nook with a table that housed the phonebook, an address book, some pens and other paraphernalia; the kid down the road had one mounted on the wall in his kitchen and another friend’s father kept theirs locked up in his office where permission needed to be granted before a call could be made.

Our Blackie was a copy of the m33, the 1931 collaboration between the Electric Bureau in Oslo and AB Alpha workshops in Sundbyberg. It had a sculptural quality to it and I was not in the least bit surprised when I discovered that it was styled by the Norwegian artist Jean Heiberg, who had studied under Matisse in Paris. 

This elegant, sturdy machine was designed to last a lifetime – and did. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, promotions, retrenchments, graduations… everything that happened among the branches of our family tree was relayed back to us via our little black box. Our family’s entire history has been breathed in and out of that receiver. 

Then the mobile phone popped up and all the energy and ingenuity that had gone into making the home phone so great was pumped into the mobile handset. Suddenly our home phone options ranged from light to plasticky. Cheap crap that boasted more features but only seemed to infuriate us in a way normally reserved for photocopiers.

The phone had become disposable. But not ours. We kept our phone with its bell that rang pleasantly, unlike the incessant digital bleeps that sounded from behind our neighbors’ walls.

It’s quite easy to get romantic about an inanimate object when you have memories of twisting a finger inside of the cord while flirting with a girl on the other side. Where because there was no caller ID you could hang up immediately if her dad answered. Or covering the mouthpiece with the palm of your hand and mouthing off at your friend for gurning at you while you were sweetly saying what is now considered Justin Bieber lyrics to the girl, all baby, baby, baby…

How many cellphones have you obliterated when throwing them at the wall out of anger? Our family home still has a scar; a chunk of plaster missing from the wall after my dad received a call telling him that I’d been caught vandalizing the Seaside Superette. 

Keep those cheap-looking cordless contemporaries that never seem to work properly and almost never have batteries, phones that flirt from room to room and are misplaced almost as often as cellphones. 

 

With Blackie we had a special phone voice, elocution that belied our lazy Eastern Cape tongues, which we only used when taking or making a call and was something we’d never use to speak to a person’s face with. 

That old phone made us feel important. Like Dick Tracy sitting with his feet up on his desk and his phone in his lap, fedora worn at a jaunty angle. Or a NASA control-room scientist that was about to give instructions to an astronaut who was ready for lift off.

Anyway, long story short, I recently found a phone similar to Blackie, and it’s like being reunited with a long-lost friend. It’s got its own special spot in the house, comes with a set of rules, and all that’s left is to teach my kids how to make a reverse charge call from the tickey box at the beach so that I can hold my head high having shared this simple joy and piece of history with them.