A Needed Departure From Christmas Merriment


*A Longing for the Lost Landline*

In the landline world, there was downtime. You left home, you looked around, you saw people, you daydreamed.

By Roger Cohen

This is a lament for the landline, a rhapsody for its dial tone, a hymn to

the way it connected people. It’s the little things we miss. The landline

was a focal point of the home, an antidote to atomization and loneliness,

those scourges of our age.

I still hear my mother, at our London home, answering the phone in her

singsong voice: “Double-one-nine-five.” Then calling out: “Is Roger home?”

People actually took calls for somebody else! They were, through such

random encounters, entwined in the lives of others. My mother might ask

afterward, “Darling, who’s Caroline?” I could not avoid some response,

however evasive.

I see the black rotary phone perched on a ledge by a window at the center

of the house. On this object, we all converged. I see my perfumed mother

(Ysatis by Givenchy) handing me the receiver. Such were the small rites and

connective tissue of the pre-solipsistic era.

The landline was a shared thing. Conversations took place at unplanned

moments. Overhearing was unavoidable. I would pull back the net curtain I

never liked and gaze out on suburban nothingness. I could not take the call

to my room.

Today, through inertia, I still have a landline in my Brooklyn apartment.

The phone sits in its charger bed like a forgotten fossil. It’s used a

handful of times a year, typically when I’ve mislaid or run down my

cellphone. A little while ago, I used it to call my daughter. “Wait! Wow!”

she said.

I waited. “Is this a landline?” I owned up to my Paleolithic retrogression.

“Oh, my God!” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I had a call from a


The other day I was talking to my friend Ruth Franklin, the author of a

prizewinning biography of the writer Shirley Jackson. She said she’d been

trying to explain to her teenagers what a dial tone is, without success.

“They had no recollection, nothing,” Franklin said. “I miss dial tones. We

got rid of our landline because nobody used it.”

Franklin recalled being mortified at her mother answering when a boyfriend

called on the family landline. “Still, at least then you had some idea who

your children were seeing. Cellphones put an end to that.”

Landlines provided connections that were stable and seemed real, in

contrast to cellphone conversations, with their enervating interruptions

because of lost reception. The cellphone introduced redialing, sometimes

multiple times. The time lost (and the arguments engendered) through

frustrating attempts to reconnect is incalculable.

In the landline world there was downtime. You left the house, you looked

around, you saw people, you daydreamed, you got lost, you found your way

again, you gazed from the train window at lines of poplars swaying in the

mist. Time drifted. It was not raw material for the extraction of

productivity. It stretched away, an empty canvas.

Experience occurred, not as a thing to be rated with stars, nor as the

prelude to a request for feedback. Sidewalks were not an obstacle course

around people absorbed by smartphones. Posture was better. Heads were not

bowed in contemplation of thumbs. The end of landlines has been bad for

necks. It has been bad for the bonds that form the commons.

People knew where they were in relation to other places on a map. They had

their bearings. They were not blue-dot zombies in motion on a navigation

system. They could remember landline phone numbers. Kids did not have play

dates, they had neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, they played with

neighbors’ children. They were not tracked minute by minute.

With landlines came punctuality. You made an appointment, you stuck to it,

there was none of the flaky something-better-to-do elasticity constant

contact facilitates. Let’s face it, lateness is rude.

Days had more structure, planning more meaning. I remember my son asking me

how I managed to meet anyone in the pre-cellphone era. I could hardly

remember. I said you arranged to meet a friend at a certain place at a

certain time and you showed up. He was skeptical.

It’s a self-regarding age. People are lost in digital labyrinths that are

distracting without being satisfying, stimulating without bringing

contentment. The holidays are coming — a time for community, a time to let

time meander, to have long conversations; a time to eat rum-doused

fruitcake, laugh, kick back, and to heck with the president’s next tweet.

Go on, wow your kids! Use the landline to call Gramma. Pass the receiver.

Explain the dial tone. Tell them it is a prelude to something. Like an

orchestra tuning its instruments. When each violin and each bow is propped

at a slightly different angle reflecting the particularities of each human

being. When the orchestra is on the verge of unison in the quest for the


Yeah, Dad, sure. Well, it’s worth a try. America needs the random

conversations it’s not having or overhearing.


Thank you, Fr. Thomas Moore, for sharing this story.


About Ray V.

Living between Aiken & Charleston,, South Carolina, USA, I like to share what I am looking at, thinking about or listening to. I refer to this as the view out my window. Thanks for stopping by.
This entry was posted in family, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Needed Departure From Christmas Merriment

  1. josiesvoice says:

    Simple plug-in landline phones are great in cases of power outages. You can still call out for help unlike a cell phone (unless it is already fully-charged). I still have a landline at home and use a cell phone when I go to work. It is the new reality,I guess. I wonder what Alexander Graham Bell would have thought about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. joyce hoffmann says:

    Still have a landline, but still have memories of when our family had a party line and as kids we would very quietly listen in on others discussions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Candice says:

    I had never thought about how cell phones have changed some of the things we experienced when there was only one phone in the house. Parents always knew who was calling, and the cord wouldn’t stretch enough to go to another room for a private conversation. Also, our time on the phone was limited–after all, someone might be trying to call mom or dad.
    We still use our landline regularly. Cell phones are for when you’re not home, at least that’s our thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Borden says:

    never thought of how different life was with a landline… great essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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