Patsy Porco

Long-Distance Calling

In Humor, long-distance phone calls on February 28, 2016 at 3:23 am

Years ago, in the late 1990s, an elderly neighbor of mine announced that she had outlived her time. Her new telephone with voice mail baffled her, and she didn’t even want to contemplate computers. She said that, at 89, it was time for her to go. She did manage to live a few more years, but she never did figure out voice mail.

I had a similar thought the other day when my friend called me during the day from Israel.

“Why are you calling me long-distance from Israel?” I asked him, incredulous.

“Why not?” he answered. “It’s not the 1960s.”

“But isn’t it outrageously expensive?” I asked.

He snorted. “I have a plan.” Having had enough of this topic, he moved on to others.

After he hung up, I wondered at my own surprise. I no longer worry about when or where I call, because there’s no need. Phone calls cost much less than they did when I was growing up. But, I haven’t traveled out of the country in years, so I thought the cost of international calling was exorbitant. Not if you have a plan, apparently.

rotary phoneI grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when “long-distance” was always pronounced in italics. Nobody called during the day, when rates were high. Long-distance calls were made at night after 5 p.m., and if possible, after 11 p.m., when rates were cheapest.

In order to avoid paying long-distance charges, all kinds of shenanigans were employed. Our family lived in Philadelphia and my mother’s sister lived in Doylestown, 45 minutes away. For some inexplicable reason, if my mother called her sister, it was long-distance. But, if her sister called her, it was a local call. So, whenever my mother wanted to talk to her sister, she’d call her, let the phone ring once, and hang up. Then she’d wait for my aunt to call her back. The obvious flaw in this system was that if her sister wasn’t home when my  mother called, she wouldn’t hear the phone ring, so she wouldn’t call back. Meanwhile, my mother waited, and waited.

Collect calls were popular, too. If you were at a phone that was not your own, you’d pay phonecall “collect” (meaning the person you were calling would have to pay for the call). You’d ask the operator to dial the number and she’d announce to the person who picked up that it was a collect call for a specific person. Whoever answered the phone, even if it was the person you were calling, would automatically say that the person wasn’t available. In the split second before the operator broke the connection, you would quickly say why you were calling: “I got home safely,” “The baby’s a girl,” or “Don’t look in the  basement closet.” My husband said that when his Canadian relatives were on their way to his family’s house for a visit, they’d call collect from a pay phone and ask for Phil Rizzuto. His mother, knowing the code, would refuse the call. Then they’d yell over the operator, in Italian, that they would be there in six hours.

There were also “bill-to-a-third-party” calls. If you were away from your phone and using someone else’s to call long-distance, you could bill the call to your own phone. The operator would take your number (or whatever number you gave her) and bill the call to it. A lot of people must have given false numbers, however, because the rule quickly changed. After the new protocol was in place, in order to make such a call, someone at the number you provided had to agree to the call being billed to that number. If nobody was home at your number, or you lived by yourself, there was no one to answer the operator’s verification phone call, so you were out of luck.

But now, everyone carries a phone and has a plan and the world has changed. I am not especially baffled by my cell phone, although I do need to learn to occasionally check my texts and voice mails. But I do know how to check them, so I’m not ready to call life quits like my neighbor did. The way I figure it, if I don’t learn a new technology, it’ll be replaced by a newer one in a few months, so if I can just hang in there, the technology will have checked out before I have to.





  1. When I was a child, my father was the town doctor and we had two telephones, one as a back up in case the hospital had to get through when we were tying up the first phone. This second phone was made affordable by making it a party line. Sometimes we’d pick up the receiver and someone we didn’t know would be talking on it so we’d have to quickly hang up.
    I think it is so interesting how quickly we all adapt to different charging schemes.

  2. I remember party lines. We didn’t have one but some people did. I knew people who listened into party lines when they were bored. It is interesting how quickly we adapt, though!

  3. Oh, I remember ‘collect’ calls… mostly used if I was somewhere far, far away, or out too late, and my dad wanted to make sure I’d phone him… Wow, that’s quite a memory-jog.

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