Father Lets in the Telephone by Clarence Day

Up to the late eighteen-nineties, when Father walked in the front door of his home and closed it behind him, he shut out the world. Telephones had been invented but, like most people, he hadn’t installed one. There was no way for anybody to get at us except by climbing up the front stoop and ringing the bell; and if the bell rang late at night, Father looked out of the window to see who it was. He thought nothing of this–homes had always been shut off since men began building them, and it seemed only natural.

Once in a long while a messenger boy would bring him or Mother a telegram–maybe two or three times a year. As this generally meant bad news, we were nervous about getting telegrams.

No telegraph poles were allowed on Fifth Avenue, but they stood in long rows on other thoroughfares. Old Margaret was mystified by all those wires, up in the air. We had wires in our house, to be sure; they had been strung inside the walls to ring bells with; but they were good, honest, old-fashioned wires and to make them work we had to pull them. There was none of this dangerous stuff called electricity in them. Electricity was much too risky a thing to put in a home, and neither we boys nor Margaret could make out what it was. All we knew about it was that there were electric batteries in the Eden Musée which could and did give anyone who paid twenty-five cents a shock. You were supposed to give yourself as big a shock as you could stand. We had been cautious in trying them, except George, who had had a startling experience. He had taken hold of one end of the thing in his right hand and moved it way up, till the indicator pointed to far more “current” than the rest of us had been able to stand, and yet he stood there at ease for a while as though he were completely immune. Then the lady in charge noticed that George hadn’t taken the other end in his left hand at all. He hadn’t understood that he ought to. When she told him that the way to feel the current was to hold one end in each hand, he immediately seized the left hand one without lowering the right from its height. It was grandly exciting to the rest of us to see how violently this shook him up, and how the lady screamed until attendants rushed over and managed to shut off the current.

After a while the telegraph company persuaded Father to let them install a brand-new invention, just inside of one of our back bedroom windows, where it couldn’t do any harm. This was a small metal box with a handle. A wire led from it which was connected with a telegraph pole, but although there was some electricity in it there was only a little, and the company guaranteed it was safe. The handle was made to look just like those on the pull-bells which we were used to. When we pulled it, the box began to buzz, and somehow that sent a signal to the nearest telegraph office, where a row of little messenger boys was supposed to be waiting. The office then sent a boy to our house ready to run any errand.

This “buzzer,” as we called it, seemed almost as remarkable to us as that lamp of Aladdin’s. By giving some extra pulls on it and making it buzz enough times, the directions said, a policeman could be summoned, or even a fire engine.

How long it would have taken for a policeman to come we never had occasion to learn. It took a messenger boy from twenty to forty-five minutes–that is, if we were lucky. The branch office was nearly a mile away and it had only one little benchful of boys. If the boys were all out when we buzzed for one, the manager had no way to tell us. We might be impatient. He wasn’t. He peacefully waited till some boy got through other errands.

On stormy days sometimes, when a friend wished to send us a message or break an engagement, a messenger would surprise us by coming without being buzzed for. He stood outside the front door, with a black rubber hood dripping with rain hanging down from his cap, blowing on his cold fingers and stamping, and ringing away at the bell. And when one of us opened the door, the boy would thrust in a wet letter and hoarsely ask us to sign the name and the hour on a small, smudgy slip.

All these delays were more or less put up with, however. There was no other service to turn to. And anyway people seldom used messengers–they were not only slow but expensive. We ran our own errands.

When the telephone was invented and was ready to use, hardly anybody cared to install one. We all stuck to our buzzers. Messenger boys were quite enough of a nuisance, suddenly appearing at the door with a letter and expecting an answer. But they came only a few times a year, and a telephone might ring every week. People admitted that telephones were ingenious contraptions and wondered just how they worked, but they no more thought of getting one than of buying a balloon or a diving-suit.

As a matter of fact, for a long time they were of little use in a home. Since almost nobody had them but brokers, there was no one to talk to. The telephone company sent us circulars in which they made large claims: they said that an important department store now had a telephone, and three banks had ordered one apiece, and some enterprising doctors were getting them. But though people saw vaguely that a telephone might be a convenience if every household installed one, they decided to wait in a body until everyone did.

Father had to have one down town, but he wouldn’t use it himself; he had it put in the back office, where the book-keeper dealt with it, bringing Father the message if necessary. The typewriter and a gelatine hektograph were in the back office, too. But the idea of putting these business conveniences in a home seemed absurd.

Mother agreed with Father–she didn’t like telephones either. She distrusted machines of all kinds; they weren’t human, they popped or exploded and made her nervous. She never knew what they might do to her. And the telephone seemed to her, and many other people, especially dangerous. They were afraid that if they stood near one in a thunderstorm they might get hit by lightning. Even if there wasn’t any storm, the electric wiring might give them a shock. When they saw a telephone in some hotel or office, they stood away from it or picked it up gingerly. It was a freak way to use electricity, and Mother wouldn’t even touch the queer toy. Besides, she said, she had to see the face of any person she talked to. She didn’t want to be answered by a voice coming out of a box on the wall.

Little by little, however, and year by year, telephones came into use. Some of the large markets and groceries installed them. The livery stable. Some druggists. And once in a while, when Father had a bad cold and couldn’t go to the office, he saw it would be a business convenience to have one at home.

After ten or fifteen years, in spite of his still having misgivings, he got one. It was put on a wall on the second floor, where everybody could hear its loud bell. We didn’t give it much of a welcome. It seemed to us rude and intrusive, and from the first it made trouble. It rang seldom but it always chose a bad moment, when there was nobody on that floor to answer. Mother would pick up her skirts and run upstairs, calling to it loudly “I’m coming! I’m coming!” but the fretful thing kept right on ringing. Father couldn’t regard it as inanimate either. He refused to be hurried like Mother, but he scolded and cursed it.

The outer world now began intruding upon us at will. This was hard to get used to. Even Mother felt there was too much of it. As for Father, he met these invasions with ferocious resentment. When somebody telephoned him and he couldn’t make out at once who it was, and when there was nothing he could shake his fist at but a little black receiver which was squeaking at him, he said it was horrible. “Speak up, speak up, damn it!” he would shout at the telephone, getting red in the face. “What is it, who are you? I can’t hear a word you are saying. I can’t hear a damned word, I tell you.”

“Clare, give me that telephone!” Mother would cry, rushing in.

“I will not give you this telephone!” Father would roar in reply, without taking his lips from the transmitter. “Will you let me alone? I am trying to find out who the devil this person is. Halloa! I say halloa there, do you hear me? Who are you? Halloa! . . . What’s that? . . . Oh, it’s you, Mrs. Nichols.” Here his voice would grow a little less forbidding, and sometimes even friendly. “Yes, Mrs. Day’s here. How are you? . . . Oh, do you wish to speak to Mrs. Day? . . . Eh? . . . Very well then. Wait a moment.” And he would at last allow Mother to get at the box on the wall.

When Father called a number himself, he usually got angry at “Central.” He said she was deaf, she was stupid, he told her she wasn’t attending to her duties in a suitable manner. If she said a number was busy, he’d protest: “I can’t sit here waiting all day. Busy? Busy be damned!”

He always assumed when the bell rang that it was a message for him. The idea that it might be a call for Mother or one of the rest of us seemed wholly improbable. If he let anyone but himself answer, he would keep calling out and asking who it was and what it was all about anyhow, while we tried, in the midst of his shouts, to hear some of the message. When we said it was something that didn’t concern him, he was incredulous, and had to have it explained to make sure.

One day a new friend of mine, a girl who had moved down to live in a settlement house in the slums, telephoned to invite me to lunch with some visiting Russians. Father answered the telephone. “Yes, this is Mr. Day. Speak up, hang it! Don’t mumble at me. Who are you? . . . What? Come to lunch? I’ve had lunch. . . . Next Friday? Why, I don’t want to lunch with you next Friday. . . . No. . . . Where? Where do you say? . . . In Rivington Street? The devil! . . . Yes, my name is Clarence Day and I told you that before. Don’t repeat. . . . Lunch with you in Rivington Street? Good God! I never heard of such a thing in my life! . . . Russians? I don’t know any Russians. . . . No, I don’t want to, either. . . . No, I haven’t changed. I never change. . . . What? . . . Good-bye, Madam. Damn!”

“I think that was a friend of mine, Father,” I said.

“A friend of yours!” he exclaimed. “Why, it sounded to me like some impudent peddler’s wife this time, arguing with me about lunching with her somewhere down in the slums. I can’t stand it, that’s all I have to say. I’ll have the confounded thing taken out.”

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