Dial "P" for "Poorhouse"

ANNE KELLEY has made several reports to ATLANTIC readers on the perilous course of the housewife through the crosscurrents of modern living.

Until recently, you could scarcely find a happier relationship than that between the telephone company and me. Ours was one of those unions, based on mutual respect and need, which seem to grow with the years in a way quite beautiful to see. What a shock it has been to me, therefore, to realize all of a sudden that one of us has outburgeoned the other, like a husband whose professional successes leave his wife gasping helplessly under the epitaph, “She just couldn’t keep up.”

In the beginning it was a simple, no-nonsense a affair. The telephone company stood by my side twentyfour hours a day, mainly so that I would not have to run out into the snow to summon aid in the event of internal bleeding at 3 A.M. For my part, I promised to pay my bills promptly and replace the receiver on the hook.

Although occasional childish pranks were permitted (“Does Fillmore Street run past your house? Well, rush out and catch it before it gets away”), and the instrument endured a certain amount of giggling and sighing in completing connections for Saturday nights, the real emphasis was on convenience and service, not frivolity.

The phone itself was simple, too — black and unpretentious. And it was generally understood that what I was supposed to do with it was order cough medicine and fuel oil, report burglaries, and summon the fire department the very moment the house began to smolder. Then the concept began to expand, ever so subtly.

Why run up and down all those stairs when, for only pennies, an extension (or two) could put me in touch with the fire department just that much more quickly? And say, why not phone up a few acquaintances, too, just to keep in touch, even if I didn’t need artificial respiration? Had I good news to share? Was it somebody’s birthday? Wasn’t there someone, somewhere, who would like very much to hear from me, whether I had just moved or not?

Now the telephone company was offering more, and expecting more in return. It was constantly adding new units, exchanges, digits, beeps, and automations in order to ensure that my friendships would never lag. my family never drift apart, and that I myself would be known as a thoughtful, popular person. It even shyly revealed to me its dearest dream — that long distance, someday, would be privileged to bring me the laughter of my grandchildren.

Naturally, I tried to hold up my end. Soon I had a Princess phone in the bedroom, a king-size filter-tip phone in the den, jacks all over the place, and a wall-to-wall instrument (my ace in the hole) strung on a fifty-foot python of cord in the kitchen for my conference calls. I was fanning myself with the yellow pages as I rushed breathlessly from one gaily colored instrument to another, and the two wires that were mine in every 4242-wire cable were humming like a pair of hypertensive crickets.

Of course, I called ahead (“Doesn’t everybody?”), and every night, when the rates went down, I asked myself a single pointed question, “How long has it been since I called Mary?”

My telephone bill soared steadily, but I figured it was worth it. I had never been more popular — receiving calls from dance studios, stormwindow and awning firms, life insurance agents, broom salesmen, and the Children’s Educational and Enrichment Foundation, at an unprecedented rate, and at the same time I was placing calls madly for friendly, thoughtful visits with those I liked (Tom and Betty, for instance, and Grandma Jones, who had been feeling poorly, and that Mrs. Brown who used to live next door). Most of them, just as the phone company predicted, thought I was pretty wonderful. A possible exception was Grandma Jones.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she shouted at me, her aged voice booming across the wires and assaulting my middle ear. “This is the third time today you’ve called me runnin’ to the telephone, and I tell you, I’ve been feeling poorly and I have to get my rest.”

But, in general, things were going so well that I promised myself I would install a sage-green phone in the teen-agers’ bathroom the very moment I had the teen-agers and bathroom required for the project, and perhaps one day a phone at the stable and another at poolside — who could say?

I was blinded by my gratitude for those weather and time-of-day numbers which the kiddies could still dial, without repercussion, whenever they got the urge to keep in touch.

And then the full implications of area code direct dial began to dawn on me, and, simultaneously, the telephone company ran a darling ad picturing a little girl wearing a blue bonnet and a string of pearls, holding a blue receiver to her ear over the caption, “Even the littlest girls like to visit by Long Distance.” That’s when I began to suspect that I was outclassed.

Why dial WE 4-1212 when you can have even more fun by dialing the new look in phone numbers — say, 506-594-7654 — and get Heart’s Delight, Newfoundland, at Mommy’s expense? (“You smile and say hello. Ask how are you? Laugh and say oh that’s wonderful! Tell the news. Say I love you. Make one another feel good. Try it. The nicest things will happen.”) The kiddies tried it: Hello, Sequoia National Park. Apache Junction, how are you? And are you feeling good, you pool hall in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan? Oh, that’s wonderful! How’s the weather up there in Walla Walla? It’s raining here, and my Mommy has a cold. Ha-ha-ha. I love you, Tastie Home Bakery in Medicine Hat, Alberta. . . .

The warmth and delight of completed telephone calls were everywhere, and happiness lingered long after the three minutes were up, but not very long after the monthly bill arrived.

Puerto Rico will be next, and who knows how long before Rio, South Vietnam, and the moon? Am I to pay for intercontinental and then universal thoughtfulness, too? Isn’t it somebody else’s turn to be popular?

Operator, Operator, come back. Never mind that phone in the bathroom. My area code is 312, and my birthday’s only two months off, but I can’t afford to transmit any more good news. So why don’t you ask Mary how long it has been since she called me?