By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 12, 1942
“To heck with it,” muttered Jimmie Frise, slamming down the telephone receiver roughly.
“Easy, easy,” I counselled. “That telephone isn’t your property.”
“Oh, yeah?” growled Jim, giving the instrument another shove.
“What’s eating you?” I demanded.
“I’ve been calling my house,” said Jimmie loudly, “for the last 15 minutes. And it’s busy, busy, busy!”
He reached over and gave the phone another shove, until it was almost off his desk.
“Well,” I scoffed, “is that the telephone’s fault? Why don’t you use a little reason, Jim?”
“Sometimes,” said Jim, “I wish the telephone had never been invented. It is the cause of more high blood pressure than all the rest of our so-called modern improvements put together. Oh, if there only were no telephones what a lovely, simple, happy world this would be!”
“Jim,” I calmed him, “without the telephone our world would be impossible. Why, our industry, our domestic life, our whole modern economy, you might say, is founded on the telephone. The shape of our cities, the size and length of our streets, the location of our business districts as compared with our industrial or factory districts is entirely based on the existence of the telephone.”
“Wait a minute,” muttered Jimmie, picking up the phone and dialing slowly and deliberately.
He listened intently. And then flung the receiver down more violently than before.
“Still busy!” he rasped.
“Our fire protection system,” I went on calmly, “our police organization, the medical profession – all the security of the modern community is organized on the telephone.”
“We’d be better off,” growled Jimmie, “with a big bell hung at every street corner, to ring in case of fire.”
“And a fire station, I suppose,” I submitted, “every two blocks? Jim, if we didn’t have telephones the cost of fire protection alone would double our taxes.”
“Just a second,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone again.
He dialed deliberately as usual, with the utmost care, sticking his finger in the right hole; and then, after one brief listen, laid the telephone down again with the greatest politeness.
“Still busy?” I inquired brightly.
“Mmmmmmm,” said Jimmie ominously.
“Why is it,” I inquired, “that when an enemy attacks a city the very first objective of the bombers or the artillery is to knock out the telephone buildings, the exchanges? So as to throw the city into complete and hopeless confusion.”
“Well, if the telephones were all busy as usual,” said Jim bitterly, with the idle chatter of young ladies, it wouldn’t make much difference. I bet if you could in some way make a Gallup Poll of the telephone conversations in one 24-hour day in Toronto, you would discover that about 23 of the 24 hours of talk was all sheer piffle.”
“Oh, hold on, Jim,” I protested. “Think of the business that is done over the telephone.”
“One hour of the 24 would be business,” declared Jim grimly. “The rest would be sheer social twaddle. People have no right to use the telephone as a means of social intercourse. People have no right to go visiting on the telephone. If they want to spend a social hour with somebody why the blazes don’t they go and see them?
“After all,” I pointed out, “it’s their own telephone.”
“No, it isn’t,” announced Jim emphatically. “No telephone belongs to anybody, even in the degree that it is in their home. I realize the telephone instruments belong to the company and we only rent the service of them. But over and above that, no telephone belongs to any one person or any two persons. The telephone belongs to all the people who might want to call in. For example, take an old spinster living in an apartment. She has a telephone. Now, nobody could believe that the telephone is hers more than that spinster.”
“I see that,” I agreed.
“She talks on the phone all the time,” said Jim. “She is a busy church worker and belongs to the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor of her church, we’ll say.”
“Okay,” I encouraged.
“So she holds committee meetings over the telephone, see?” went on Jim. “Instead of going to all the trouble of gathering the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor together, either at the church or at somebody’s home, with all the nuisance of having to bring their own tea and sugar, why, she, as the chairman of the committee, simply calls each of the seven other ladies on the telephone. And after a nice long conversation with each one she sums up their opinions, adds up their votes, and then calls each one back again and informs them of the way the vote went and just how the committee feels.”
“It’s a common practice in business,” I pointed out, that very system.”
“Ah, yes, but wait a minute,” said Jim. “This lady is a spinster. Forty years ago she had a prospect. He was a young man of promise who was snatched from under this spinster’s nose by a local blonde.”
“This is getting interesting,” I urged.
But Jimmie, seeing through my false interest, suddenly remembered the phone and picked it up. He dialed rapidly. He listened acutely. Then he slammed the receiver down again as hard as ever.
The Lost Opportunity
“Still busy,” he said, this time without any blood pressure. “Well, sir. The very day that this spinster is holding a committee meeting on her telephone, that boyhood sweetheart of hers, now a widower, is passing through Toronto on his way from New York to Winnipeg. He is a widower now, the blonde having died of premature old age, as blondes so often do. He is rich. He is powerful. But he is lonely. He is returning to his great empty house in Winnipeg. And as he waits between trains in Toronto, just one hour, he remembers his old sweetheart and the thought occurs to him to look in the Toronto telephone book – at which he hasn’t looked in 30 years. And he sentimentally looks up his old sweetheart’s name. And there it is. Miss Julie Bonbon!”
“Very romantic,” I admit.
“So all slightly perspiring,” says Jim, “this rich old widower, who is an elder and manager in one of the biggest churches in Winnipeg, by the way, calls the number, in the remote chance that this Miss Julie Bonbon is the same Julie Bonbon he knew and loved 40 years before.”
“As indeed she was,” I remarked.
“He calls, his heart in his mouth,” pursues Jimmie, “and the line is busy. Good, he says, trying desperately to think up what he will say if it is indeed she. And he tries again. Line busy. He looks at his watch. Only 15 minutes before his train is called. He tries again. Until three minutes to train time that rich old widower tries that blasted telephone every minute. And all the time it is busy. Because of the committee meeting.”
“Why didn’t he make a note of her address,” I demanded, “and he could have written her from Winnipeg?”
“Nothing doing,” said Jim. “A telephone call is one thing. A letter is quite another. And, anyway, he was so mad by the time he called for the last time that he went and boarded the train for Winnipeg, saying to himself that he was a lucky man to have married the blonde instead of this awful blatherskite. At least the blonde was dead. And on the train home he sat smiling to himself and thinking what a silly fool he was to have even tried to telephone.”
“So the moral?” I queried.
“This tale needs no moral,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone and preparing to dial his home again. “All you need is the spectacle of that spinster, sitting in her apartment, holding a meeting of the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor on what she foolishly imagines to be her own private telephone. In view of the great mystery and all the possibilities of this life, no telephone belongs to anybody. You never know but what opportunity, which knocks only once, may only ring once on the telephone instead.”
Then Jimmie dialed slowly and carefully and a bright smile wreathed his face.
“It’s ringing,” he said, with great satisfaction.
And it rang and rang. And Jimmie rattled the hook and broke connections. And dialed again. And again it rang and rang.
Blathering On and On
“Well,” sighed Jimmie, setting the receiver down very politely. “Whoever was in has apparently gone out.”
What did you want to get your house for?” I inquired.
And Jimmie looked blankly at me for a moment and said:
“By gosh, that story I made up has chased it entirely out of my head!”
“What I dropped in to see you about,” I stated, “was that newsreel that shows Sam Doakes. I’ve located it. It’s at the Valley theatre.”
“Away out there?” cried Jim.
“It’s only half an hour on the street car,” I protested. “And after all the time we’ve talked about going to see old Sam’s face, it is time we went.”
“It’s only a glimpse,” said Jim. “One second. And we can’t be sure it is Sam.”
“His wife says it’s him,” I assured. “She’s seen it 30 times. It shows Sam standing beside an anti-aircraft gun with a pair of field-glasses and the gun is actually firing at the Huns.”
“Wait till it comes to some neighborhood theatre near home,” said Jim. “I was intending to stay in tonight and loaf. The family is out and I can get a lot of things done tonight that I have been putting off.”
“I even got the time the newsreel comes on,” I pleaded. “Look. What would Sam Doakes, a lifelong friend, think of us two if he knew his picture had been in the newsreels and neither of us had gone even to the trouble of going to see it?”
“What time does it come on?” Jim asked.
“Twenty to nine,” I said, “Allowing half an hour to get there by street car, we can leave your house at 8 and be in our seats in plenty of time…”
So Jimmie agreed that he would be ready if I called at his house a minute or two before 8.
And at five to 8 I was in his front hall and Jimmie came downstairs with his hunting boots in his hands, having been upstairs greasing them. It took him a few minutes to wash up and get his coat on. And we were just passing out the door at five minutes past when the telephone rang.
“Drat the thing,” said Jimmie, snatching up the receiver. “Why, hello, Andy!”
“Tell him you’ll ring him back tomorrow,” I said loudly, and pointed to the hall clock.
But Jim sat down on the hall chair. “You don’t say?” he said eagerly. “How many? Seven. Boy, that’s some litter. How many males?”
I walked over and stuck my watch under his nose. It was seven past 8.
“Mm-hmmm,” said Jimmie delightedly. “What color are the three males? All blue ticked, eh?”
And as the grandfather’s clock tocked and ticked the minutes away. Jimmie sat slouched deeper and deeper in the chair, an air of complete coziness and social ease engulfing him, his eyes shut, smiles brightening his countenance, his eyebrows lifting, as he blathered on and on to his old friend, Andy Perkins, breeder of beagle hounds.
Somebody Else’s Selfishness
His conversation consisted mostly of “Mmm-hmmm” and “Well, well” and “Think of that.” Just when you would think it was about to end he would ask some fool question, such as “Who was the grandsire of the dam. did you say, Andy?” and I could hear Andy’s voice scratching and droning endlessly away on the receiver.
Eleven past 8, 14 past 8, while I stood, watch in hand, coldly waiting for this social engagement to come to an end and recalling, vividly, the Jimmie I had seen a few hours earlier at the office slamming telephone receivers down and vainly dialing his home.
At 8.15 I walked over and held my watch down under his nose and made him open his eyes as he lounged there, drowsily “Mm-hmmm-ing.”
“Well, Andy,” he said, straightening up “it swell to hear from you. I’ll be coming over as soon as I can to have a look at the litter.”
And then it took him, another good five minutes to wind up. He stood up. He buttoned his coat with one hand. Straightened his hat. Smiled. Nodded his head. Bowed. Handed me the cigarette butt that was now burning his gloves. And at 23 minutes past 8 made his final “So long” and hung up reluctantly.
“Okay,” he said briskly.
“Jim,” ‘I stated bitterly, it is too late. We never can make it now.”
“Nonsense,” he cried. “I wasn’t three minutes.”
“Jim,” I stated, “you were 15 minutes on that phone. Longer than you were trying to get your house this afternoon, remember?”
“But I haven’t seen Andy for five months,” Jim said indignantly. “And, besides, it was a more or less of a business conversation …”
“It’s a queer thing,” I informed him levelly, “how we can always justify our own misuse of the telephone, even while our blood pressure is still up 100 over somebody else’s selfishness.”
“If we step on it,” said Jim, nudging me out the door, “we can still make it to the theatre by 20 to 9.”
But just off Jim’s front steps I saw my small daughter coming full pelt around the corner and when she saw me she cried out:
“Hurry, Daddy, hurry. Long distance!”
And up the street like a terrier I legged it to my house to hear across 1,000 miles from his camp in Nova Scotia the voice of my son.
Editor’s Note: In the early days of the phone network, the phone company would own the telephones as well. So when they were discussing the ownership of telephones, there was that aspect as well.