Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Hello, Central

Rachel Syme in The New Yorker:

If you call me and I am at home, chances are you are going to reach me on an actual, old-fashioned, dial-’em-up telephone. The one that currently sits on my desk is a putty-colored rotary model circa the nineteen-sixties, with a weighted handset and a long, sproingy, yellowing cord that scrunches pleasantly between the fingers like al dente fusilli. I purchased this particular phone last fall, on eBay, for $19.99. You can find far pricier vintage telephones on that site, of course—retro phones in Instagram-friendly colors such as avocado green and Barbie pink can easily sell for upward of eighty dollars, and nineteen-thirties Bakelite models regularly soar into the hundreds—but I did not really see the need to pay more. The phone was going to serve as a guinea pig in a technological experiment, and I figured that there was about a fifty-per-cent chance it might short-circuit or go up in flames. Why throw good money after bad wiring?

One too many screwball comedies had planted visions in my mind: making frenzied reporting calls while cradling a receiver with my shoulder; having long gossip sessions with old friends while holding the phone to my ear with one hand and polishing my toenails with the other. But I absolutely did not want to install a landline, which would involve scheduling a technician and generating a new phone number. I have had the same cell number since my junior year of high school, and I take comfort in knowing that anyone who has ever had it knows exactly how to reach me, even if we haven’t spoken in two decades. What I wanted was the ability to reroute calls from my iPhone to an antiquated clunker phone so that calls would trill through my office with the equally crisp and obnoxious sound of an analog bell mechanism. I wanted to feel like the legendary nineteen-seventies Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, who was famous for negotiating million-dollar contracts for her clients while lounging at home in luxury caftans. I wanted to feel like a gal Friday, hopping to a task with a fast hello and an open notepad. I wanted to feel like Rock Hudson, gabbing in the bathtub. So I went into reporter mode and Googled every possible method for converting a smartphone into a gag phone, which is how I found my way to a flimsy little device called the Cell2Jack.

The Cell2Jack does not, at first glance, instill much confidence. The company’s bare-bones Web site looks like it was made decades ago using GeoCities, and boasts that its product will, among other benefits, help you finally hear your phone if your cell ringer is too low for your aging ears. If I may offer a marketing tip, what the business should be promising is to entertain people like me—older millennials who still remember the beauty of chatting away the afternoon on a Princess phone, or perhaps Gen Z-ers nursing romantic fantasies of the olden days. This is a novelty purchase and should be treated as such. The device itself consists of a gleamy, white plastic box about the size of a deck of cards and a USB charging cord to plug the box into a wall. You must separately acquire a phone cord to connect the box to your analog telephone. Then the Cell2Jack will light up and become a wee Bluetooth hub for linking up to your cell. Voilà! All incoming calls will now divert to the vintage handset. The first time I heard the ring resound through my office, it was both strange and dreamy, like I had converted my own apartment into a period movie set.

I should note that this setup is not without its quirks. In order to get my old rotary phone to ring using the Cell2Jack, I had to pry open the back and switch the “bias spring” to low position using a complicated set of instructions so that the clapper was sensitive enough to function. After a few weeks of use, the first Cell2Jack box I bought simply stopped working and I had to buy a replacement. Sometimes calls cut out, and sometimes the audio is garbled and fuzzy, like I am speaking through a fish tank. And picking up calls would be risky without the very modern advantage of glancing at my iPhone first to check for spam. But when the system is running smoothly it is glorious. Connecting the phone each morning has shifted how I think about working from home; my day begins and ends when I log on and off the device. Calls from publicists or from my editor now feel eventful in a way that cuts through the monotony of the day. On weekends, when I am desperate for a long catch-up with a friend, I’ll plug the phone back in again, seeming very purposeful and very silly at the same time. It makes me feel glamorous and put together to grab my vintage receiver, even if I am still in my pajamas. Now I’m wondering about other phones to buy, other fantasies to fulfill. Could a lipstick telephone be in my future?

I have three old-style phones, including the candlestick variety, and I still have a land-line. I’m not hooking up my cellphone to one, either. Technology only goes so far.

One bark on “Hello, Central

  1. I will admit I still don’t own a cell phone and have no plans to acquire one.
    A long time ago a friend’s young daughter walked up to me and announced that when she grew up she wanted to be a dinosaur. I told her that she was going to get her wish. I certainly did…..

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