Game of Phones

How a princess taught me to love progress

When I was 13, my dad pulled the telephone out of the wall.

Our avocado green Pacific Telephone rotary wall phone hung above a desk in the hallway near our bedrooms. It was the family phone, and two adults, one teenager and two preteens had to share it. I probably used it the most. OK, not probably—I used it the most. (Did I mention I was 13?) The phone had a 15-foot cord that reached my room, where I spent hours flung across my bed talking to my friends.

The day my dad killed the phone, I was talking to Truman, a geeky 14-year-old boy I had a major crush on. We were on the phone four and a half hours. I can't remember what was so important it required a four and a half hour discussion but my father's broker had been trying to reach him with an urgent stock question all day and could not get through. In another five years, call waiting would be invented. And ten years after that, the answering machine. But this was 1967 and my dad was shit out of luck. He would never connect with his broker.

That missed phone call cost him $500. ($3,646.75 today).

He went berserk. He stormed around the house shouting like only an Italian male from New York can shout. He shouted at me. He shouted at my mom and sisters. He even shouted at my brother and he was only 3 years old. Waving his arms, my father paced between the living room and the hallway while we cowered behind our mom's back.

My father's meltdown finally climaxed in the hallway where, practically crying, he grabbed the phone cord and pulled. Hard. The phone ripped out of the wall. Plaster flew everywhere. Then in a last defiant gesture, he stomped on it.

My mom watched his performance silently, her children clutching her apron, and said, "Well, that solves that problem, Nunzio."

Panting, he ran his hands through his hair then left.

Lying there in pieces, the phone looked like a dead animal. Rotary roadkill. And like roadkill, nobody wanted to touch it. Two days passed before my mom finally chucked it in the trash and called the phone company. A repairman appeared with a new one. Same color. Same style.

"Teenagers?" he asked my mom.

"One, with two snapping at her heels," she said.

"My condolences," he said. "How long a cord do you want?"

"Make it a short one," my mom said. "I have my marriage to consider."

That night, as I checked out the new phone, my father appeared at my side.

"No phone for you, young lady," he said to me.

"What? That's not fair!" I said.

"You're lucky this isn't coming out of your allowance," he said.

"For how long?"

"Until I say."

"It's like being in jail living here," I said.

"You're telling me," he said.

Settling into life sans phone was not easy. If I wanted to make a call, I had to walk two blocks to the liquor store on the corner and use their pay phone. I stood in the hot sun (this was Los Angeles), near cars and exhaust and noise from the busy street, and tried to have a conversation. But someone would always appear, jumpy and impatient to make a call, and I'd have to hang up.

One day, when my parents were out, I used our phone—a quick call to my friend Kathy. Two minutes, tops. That night, my sisters, evil little monsters consumed by sibling rivalry, told on me. My dad erupted. When he was done, I held my ground.

"What kind of parent would make their kid stand in front of a liquor store to make a phone call? A crazy drunk could attack me. I could be flashed by a pervert. Someone could kidnap me," I said.

"Hold on while I get my violin," my dad said.

One day, about three weeks later, my aunt and uncle were over for Sunday dinner. My Uncle Vinnie watched me sneak out several times that afternoon. He finally pulled me aside in the backyard.

"Are you having a secret rendezvous?" he said, winking.

"Yeah, with a pay phone," I said.

I explained the phone situation to him and he cracked up. My uncle was cool and we adored him. Funny, laid-back and smart (he was an aerospace engineer at McDonnell Douglas), he talked to us like adults. He had once for a short time been an elementary school principal. He knew kids.

Two weeks later, my birthday rolled around, my fourteenth. After school that day, my mom appeared in my room with a package the size of a shoebox.

"What's this?"

"A birthday present from your uncle," she said.

I weighed it in my hands then shook it. Confused and excited, I tore off the wrapping paper. There was a picture of a phone on the side of the box. I glanced at my mom.

"Go on. Open it," she said hiding a smile.

I pulled off the lid.

Inside the box lay the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen—a princess phone in bubble-gum pink.

"Oh my god," I said, lifting it out of the box. "My own phone! Uncle Vinnie is the best uncle in the whole wide world."

"Someone we all know and love could take a page out of his parenting book," she muttered as she cleared the wrapping paper off my bed. "Your uncle is paying for the installation but you have to pay the bill every month—$15."

A few days later, my new phone sat on my bedside table. I would be the first kid at school to have one. None of the parents were happy about it. They never had phones. Why should their kids?

Change is a bitch.

My family crowded into my room that day to witness my first call—to Truman, of course. My dad didn't say much. He hung back, silent. Looking back on it now, I realized what a good sport he'd been, being upstaged by his kid brother. Their parenting styles were so different—the old-fashioned authoritarian versus the modern, enlightened empath.

Years later, when faced with the same situation with my 8-year-old daughter—whether or not to get her a phone—this time a cell—I had to chose sides—my dad's or my uncle's. Eight-year-old kids did not have phones in 1998. My kid would be the first. And her friends' parents weren't happy about it. Their biggest complaint? They never had phones when they were kids. But I believed a kid with a phone was a safe kid and that change is only a bitch if you don't embrace it.

Tags: family