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LeBARON: The not-so-smart side of those phones

Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.

The Santa Rosa Symphony Orchestra's Sunday afternoon concert a week ago ended with a splendid performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, which was his last great work and ends, not with his customary crashing finale (think 1812 Overture) but by drifting off into silence — his musical version of death itself.

In the last measures the notes grow fainter and fainter and finally fade away. It's a sad and beautiful ending. Or it is intended to be.

However, on Sunday afternoon, as the last notes were fading, there came the distinctive merry jingle of a cell phone ring tone, from somewhere in a corner of the balcony.

We've all been there — at plays, films and lectures, even at funerals. But this was the ultimate. As the orchestra's conductor-emeritus, Corrick Brown, was heard to mutter on the way out: “There is no place in classical music where it could have been more inappropriate.”

Or more clearly discernible. If anyone there ever doubted the acuity of the acoustics in the Green Music Center's Weill Hall, they question no more.

As another audience member has suggested: “Perhaps 'Smartphone' is an oxymoron.”

I have had telephones in general under consideration for some time.

It began last year when my daughter informed me that she has discontinued her landline — that's what everyone younger than a Boomer calls the instrument that once sat on our desk or hung on our kitchen wall. Now it's a “landline.” And, apparently, people who have kept up with technology don't need one anymore.

Well, that gave me pause. (“One moment please” as the lady called “Operator” used to say.)

This consideration of communicative progress intensified when a woman at a recent gathering pointed across the room to a young girl who was deeply absorbed in what looked to be reading matter.

“See there,” the woman said to me. “That girl has never seen a phone book before. She's nine years old and she's never seen a telephone book.”

Then, a couple of days later I was talking with a 20-something friend about my glasses. She asked if I used them to read the newspaper. I said I did, and also to read the phone book.

“Phone book!” She seemed startled. “You still have a phone book?”

As it turns out the telephone book is as interesting as the phone itself.

What will Brownie troops use to make doorstops for family Christmas gifts? What will “he-men” rip apart to show their muscles? What will target shooters use to show the power of high-velocity bullets?

There's a whole body of phone book lore out there. As we all know, if you put two phone books together, page-by-page, two automobiles cannot pull them apart.

Did I learn that in physics class? Nope, I learned it from a school child who saw it on TV's "Mythbusters."

It so happens that I have several phone books in my bag of historical tricks. Sonoma and Lake Counties, 1907 and 1908; Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, 1918, 1926, 1936, 1948 and 1954. The '48 book came out of someone's attic and is missing a couple of corners chewed off by a passing rodent, but it's still helpful when you are looking for old names and addresses. The numbers are of no use at all.

The general information pages are fun to read. The early ones explain things like how to have the operator send a messenger to fetch “a non-subscriber” to come to the nearest Pacific Tel. & Tel. office to take a call.

This takes me back. Not to 1907, mind you, but to the middle of the 20th century when it wasn't unusual for the operator in our town (who lived right there, in a couple of rooms behind the switchboard) to tell a caller that the party she was calling wasn't home, that she'd just seen her go into Johnson's Store. If a messenger were needed, she would probably have flagged a passing neighbor, to run across and tell Gert that Maggie wanted to talk to her one the phone.

I am particularly fond of a paragraph in the 1907 book called: “How to Answer a Telephone Call”.

It reads: “Remove the hand telephone from the hook and say, 'Here is Main 297' (or whatever your number may be). The party calling should say, “This is Main 298 (or whatever the number may be). Much friction and annoyance will be avoided if this simple plan is carried out.”

Way to go Pac T&T! You gotta love a utility company that wants to help us avoid friction and annoyance.

I like the numbers in the old books. The Press Democrat's number in 1907 was 54. Remarkably, the number was still 54 when I came to work here. Santa Rosa was one of last towns to get direct dialing and it was the late '50s, when our numbers changed to five digits with a distinctive prefix.

Ours was LIberty. You dialed LI (translated to 54) and the number.

But we lost our Liberty and the prefixes multiplied and the service expanded until, I guess you could say, it imploded. And the younger set began to talk about the telephone, as we knew it as a relic.

Today, with a Smartphone, iPhone, Blackberry, Android etc., I could deposit checks, pay my bills, get directions from here to anywhere, find a recipe for frog's legs, play Scrabble with my friends or, I suppose, make a telephone call.

Still, if I'm going to have a conversation of more than “Where are you?” or “Did you get my email?” I prefer my landline. It rarely spits and crackles or goes dead at the wrong moment.

And it never, never rings in the final moments of a live performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth.

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