Friday, April 2, 2010

My parents life of crime: THE BEIGE PHONE

Professionally, my father was an attorney, the likes of which are disappearing today. He could represent you for a parking ticket, or he could argue before the United States Supreme Court, which he did. All sorts of people came to him and he did what he was paid to do - give them sound legal advice, the likes of which they may or may not want to hear.

My mother had nursing training and worked in doctors offices. Still, she was at her best when she was a housewife and committee lady. Our house was always in order to the outside world, but our junk drawer lived up to its name.

Aside from their divorce from each - a prolonged process that was like watching cancer overtake a dying patient, both of my parents were law abiding citizens who were not on the wrong side of anything for the most part, but they crossed the line when I was growing up and I'm here to come clean because I can't carry the heavy shame of their actions.

Before the break up of the Bells in 1982, phone service was a heavily regulated industry. Consumers got artificially low rates in exchange for doing all of your business with the phone company.  This meant that you leased your phones from the phone company, and you paid out the "waazoo" for long distance and special services like multiple phones, which were used back then for talking to people.  For their part the phone company also maintained your phones, which in the mid 1960s were still hard wired to the wall.  Plug in phones - those with jacks that you could move from room to room were still a luxury.  So phones got put in the kitchen, or the hall way and if you really had made it, your parents would have a second phone in the bedroom.  My grandmother had her phone wired in a hallway outside the bedroom, and it sat on what was placed on a desk like piece of furniture - the likes of which are never found in homes today - that combine a desk and a side ways chair.  The idea was, since the phone couldn't be moved, you sat and talked on the phone.  Why?  Because the phone company would give you four feet of phone cord, and you weren't taking that call anywhere but there.   And forget about having enough cord to drag that phone into the other room.  You sat and talked on the phone, but not to long because someone with an EMERGECY could be waiting for you to get the Hell off that phone!  Phones came in a limited number of colors - most were black.  Some were "green" but most were still black.  Sure they had things like princess phones and touch tone phones, but that was for other people who liked to waste their money on what my father commonly called "crap". This was what phone service meant in the 1960s.

Our family, while living in the nightmare which was my parents marriage, was also living the dream because our home had two phones. One in the kitchen and one in my parents bedroom.  But sometime after I developed an awareness of the surroundings around me, my father had the phones on Sherrington Road upgraded to portable units that could be carried from room to room and plugged into jacks stationed in many rooms.   With so many jacks and only one phone that could be moved (the other phone was bolted to the kitchen wall and it wasn't going anywhere) temptation got the better of my parents and a "beige phone" appeared in our house. 

The "beige phone"quickly turned into being called THE BEIGE PHONE, so named because it was not black, but a muddy light brown.  Its ominous formal name came into existence because that phone was the elephant in the living room, so to speak. Yes, we had it, but it didn't ring for one thing, and for another, our phone number wasn't in the window in the middle of the phone's dial.  Where "LOngacre1-1234" should have been was an empty window under which rested a bolt and nut. Where was our telephone company insert?  This phone did have one, and it didn't have one for a big reason:

Ohio Bell had no idea we had this phone.  My parents had an illegal phone, and thus they crossed the line between what was morally right, and what wasn't.  This is my secret shame.

Remember, you just couldn't go out and buy a phone back then.  The phone had to have come from a phone company, which one of the Bell's is anyone's guess. It was a Western Electric phone so it was Bell property.  It was unaccounted for.  And no one was talking about where the phone came from either.  It was like *POOF* and it like magic, there was this phone.  And like good racketeers, both my father and my mother told us not to ask questions if we knew what was good for us.  We were all in on the crime, whether we were old enough to use the phone, or not.  If  we were caught - the phone company would fine us and tack on a whole extra dollar per month to the phone bill.  And back then, a dollar bought you two gallons of gasoline!  And evidently the phone had been "fixed" by having its bell silenced, so it would never ring, and thus would never give us away in the event that the phone police came to our house with their phone sniffing dog and one of the neighbors would call us to see if everything was OK.

The phone made its way from room to room at the house on Sherrington Road, and then made the move with us to South Woodland Road in 1968, where it found a home in my father's library - a large den in the front of the house.

Still in the event that the phone company ever came in to the neighborhood, someone would panic and yell "Quick, hide that phone or they'll charge us!"  My father even went so far to tell me in first grade that if someone from the phone company asks, I was not to say a word about THE BEIGE PHONE..  "If they ask, you don't know anything about THE BEIGE PHONE, you understand?" my father would instruct. And why would he say that?  Because our next door neighbor on South Woodland was an executive with Ohio Bell.  The McCord's had six children, from high school age to a new born, but the subject of hot phones never came up in conversation. Still, my father was suspect. 

"They have ways of knowing how many phones are in the house," he said.

"Why not just pay for the third phone?" I asked.

"Are you kidding - do you know how much they charge for a third phone?  My God, there would go you College education!"  Like I said, the cost would have been a whole $12 a year for the peace of mind of playing by the rule.  But no, we had to live with this secret because my father was intent on investing that $12 at .3% over eight years so I could buy an entire college education . 

Did I believe him?

Please: hyperbole, thy name is Marvin.

When my parents divorced the last time, they got into this whole big argument about who got THE BEIGE PHONE.  "Why would I want that thing, " my mother said to me.  I was confused.  Why not indeed?  Wasn't this the thing that had bound us together in a secret society that no outsider would ever dare pierce?

"I only 'want' it because your father wants it." She said.   Since I was child and used that ploy at every chance that I could, I understood the tactic, but for an adult to use it left me confused.   "You'll see," she said.  "I give him that phone, I get something in return that I want.  And what I want is something you don't have to hide whenever someone says Ohio Bell."

From my father, who thought I was his personal medium for passing messages onto my my mother, would tell me "Tell your mother she can't have THE BEIGE PHONE.  Its mine, she better not take it."  For something we weren't supposed to talk about, my parents spent a lot time haggling over that phone.  I seem to remember that my mother let him have THE BEIGE PHONE, and for her trouble she ended up with the Steuben glass knick knacks.

"Let's see her try an place a call on that Gad damned Rams Head candy dish!" he said while savoring his  Pyhrric victory. 

I consider myself lucky that this is the most sinister thing that my parents did.  In all other things they were pretty much sticklers for playing by the rules.  I know I'm lucky that my folks almost always walked on the side of whats right.  Except where this phone was concerned.  Which is why the whole thing was so damn"naughty".  Had my parents been total creeps, they would have had bodies in the freezer and I'd be in the witness protection plan.  But this? Feh!

After my father died, and I would go to an antique mall, and I would see an old Western Electric rotary desk phone, I would be tempted to buy it.  You know, to keep the tradition of THE BEIGE PHONE alive and all.  But with the change in telecom, what fun is it hiding something that is no longer against the law and where's the fun in that?  Then I found out that in phone collecting circles, there is no Western Electric beige desk phone.  The phone was in fact "Tan", not beige. Strange how you can grow up and in an instant see all of your perceptions changed.  Somehow, screaming to "hide THE TAN PHONE" seems off, unlike the satisfyingly bland color of BEIGE which need to be spoken about in a manner that no one but the deaf could mistake.   Still, in our house, THE BEIGE PHONE is a coded phrase for any uncomfortable moment that one needs to escape.  When the Watch Tower people come to the door, I can never talk to them no thank you, because I have to get THE BEIGE PHONE.


  1. i took MY beige phone, a touch-tone, when i vacated my first apartment. it was a phone that i had been "renting". i was in ernestine's corner when it came to the phone company....fuck 'em.

  2. Not only did we have the beige phone but we had the business version of the beige phone with push button two lines and a hold. Each line had call waiting so in essence we had four lines. If the phone was for someone else you would put it on hold and let it blink until the other person realized and picked up. If you were really lazy you pushed down for call waiting and called the other line to let them know.

    I miss that phone system.