Payphone by
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♫ I’m at a payphone trying to call home ♪
♫ All of my change I spent on you ♪

"I'm at a payphone trying to call home/All of my change I spent on you." Maroon 5 sang this song in 2012, and I had to laugh.

Maroon 5 sang this song in 2012, and I had to laugh. Payphones were already long gone. Kids today don’t even know what they are. What was Adam Levine thinking? And yet the song was a hit, rising to number 2 on the US charts and number 1 in the UK and Canada.

More about telephones: I got a call the other day from a doctor’s office, and the young woman asked whether the number she was calling me on was an iPhone or an Android. “Neither,” I said, “it’s a landline. You’ve probably never heard of those.” “Yes I have,” she responded, “my parents had one when I was little.” Wow. I still prefer talking on a landline phone, I like the heft of the receiver, and the fact that I can hold it between my head and my shoulder if I want to do something else with my hands. I tell people if they want to send me a text, use my mobile number, but if they want to talk to me, call my landline.

I think I still have my typewriter from college, a Hermes, somewhere in the house. I don’t know why, I can’t imagine ever using it. I think back to writing my senior thesis in college, typing draft after draft, and then ultimately paying someone to type the final copy while I was still writing the last chapter. And then, when it was finally finished, taking it to a copy shop and having a second copy made at five cents a page, because we were required to turn in two copies. If I had been able to write and revise it on a computer, not only would I have saved the expenses of a professional typist and a copy shop, but I would not have had to spend time retyping the whole thing with each revision. I’m sure I would have devoted that extra time to making it even better than it was, and I probably would have gotten at least a magna on it.

Doing research before the internet was so much more exhausting and time-consuming. At the very least we had to go to the library to find books or periodicals on our topics. Old newspaper articles had to be read on microfilm, using a special machine that only libraries had. If we couldn’t find what we needed at the library, what did we do? If we were lucky, there were primary sources we could talk to. Otherwise I think we probably just ditched that topic and found something else. I remember as recently as 2000, my daughter Sabrina had to write a high school history paper, and the topic she had chosen from the teacher’s list of topics was Meroe (pronounced Mer’-o-way). What is Meroe? An ancient city-state in northern Africa, in what is now Sudan. Pretty obscure, but right now I can type that word into the search bar on my computer and come up with 1,070,000 results. Twenty years ago Sabrina couldn’t find anything more than encyclopedia articles at our local branch library. I ended up letting her skip school one day so I could take her to the Central Library downtown where there were scholarly books and periodicals. (Does everyone remember the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature?) Even then it was so hard to find enough written about it that my inclination was to see if she could switch to a different topic. But it was either too late for that or else everything else was taken. So she managed to put something together, but it wasn’t very good, because of the paucity of information. Now it would be much easier!

Navigation is another thing that has improved immensely in the computer age. While I loved those AAA TripTiks, and was very skilled at reading maps, having a GPS built in to my car or my phone, with a voice that tells me “turn left here” or “your destination is ahead on the right” is wonderful when driving (or even walking) in an unfamiliar place. I remember getting terribly lost in Providence, Rhode Island many years ago, because even though I had a good map and great verbal directions from a native, there were no visible street signs, so it was impossible to know where to turn. Now I would be able to rely on GPS, with no need to see any signs.

Finding friends, and keeping in touch with them, is also much easier now with computers. Sure, I miss getting those lovely handwritten missives in the mail, but I was almost completely out of touch with my high school and college friends until the advent of the internet. Nobody would have dreamed of calling each other long distance except in an emergency, because it was too expensive, and anyway, every time we moved, our phone numbers changed. Gradually I lost touch with everyone other than the people who showed up at reunions when I did. Getting back in contact once we all had computers was a real boon.

Photography is another area where life was harder before computers. Digital photography has completely changed the experience of taking pictures. Initially just having digital cameras made a huge difference, because you could see the picture as soon as you took it and figure out if it was satisfactory or if you needed to take another one. When I was young, my father would sometimes take an entire roll of basically the same picture, just to be sure that one of them would turn out well, and we wouldn’t know until days or weeks later when the film was developed. With digital, taking multiple shots was no longer necessary.

As an example, this picture of Sabrina and me is from our trip to take her to her freshman year of college, as described in Launching my firstborn. We jumped out of the car when we saw this road sign for Wells College. Someone offered to take the picture for us, but his first shot just focused on the two of us and cut off the signs at the top. Since I could see that right away, I was able to ask him to take another one that had the Wells College sign, since that was the whole point of the picture.

The leap from cameras to phones that could take pictures made an even bigger change. Everyone always had their phone with them at all times, so they could snap a shot – or even a video – at a moment’s notice, no need to run for the camera any more. I have so few pictures of my life during college or in my twenties, because I didn’t have a camera then, but nowadays I have pictures of everything, including what I had for dinner on my birthday, and a butterfly I saw in the park.

In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, astronaut Michael Collins said “We thought our onboard computer [on Apollo 11] was very sophisticated but in fact it had less computing power than what we all carry around in our pockets today.”

On the phone in your pocket you can write a letter, or even a term paper (especially with a keyboard attachment), research any topic, look at a map or get directions, search for lost friends and keep in touch when they are found, take unlimited photos and videos, even listen to or record music. All this, and you can even use the phone for its original purpose, talking to someone. It’s a far cry from having to find a pay phone and scrounge up the change to make a call.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You make great points throughout your discussion, Suzy. The Internet has certainly changed the way we research information and it is available at our fingertips. I wrote family history in the aftermath of my father’s death, more than 30 years ago, and like with your thesis, I took it to a professional typist and had copies made to distribute to my far-flung cousins. It was an expensive project. Now I can do it at home.

    And certainly our mobile phones have revolutionized photography. I don’t even bother to carry a digital camera, as I always have one with me, and all the photos automatically get uploaded to the cloud and my computer. What a world!

    I love your point about landlines. We still have them in both our homes and think the quality is better. I agree they are easier to hold on your shoulder, but now we mostly get junk calls on our, so don’t give out the number any longer.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. We get mostly junk calls on our landline too, but also on our cell phones, so I don’t know which is worse. And when people I know call me on my cell phone, I always say “How did you get this number?” Then I make them call me back on my landline.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific anthology of the many things that the new technologies have brought us in phones, cameras, computers, directional findings, etc. Indeed, your discussion of doing research closely parallels my own discussion of writing legal briefs — and I assume is similar to your experiences writing them as well.

    And I do remember Michael Collins’ quote from 2019 and have seen it from time to time as a humbling reminder to everyone who has been impatient when his or her smart phone was in a dead zone or loading slowly. Oh, the humanity!

    But I think I most resonated to your discussion of TripTiks (which Betsy also referenced) and, more particularly, getting lost in Providence, Rhode Island. I can assure you that, far more recently, I have managed to get lost there even with my car’s GPS. I think it is the proverbial “you can’t get there from here” place.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Yes, hours spent in the law library doing research – but the law library was the social hub of the AG’s office, so it was actually terrible when we could do the research by computer, it ruined everyone’s social life!

      I changed your use of a brand name of phone in 2nd par. of your comment, because it is a brand I do not like, hope you don’t mind. But it made my day to learn that you can get lost in Providence even with GPS.

      • John Shutkin says:

        I’m fine with that change; really meant it generically anyway. Law library as a social hub? As soon as there was anything above a whisper in my law firm’s library, there was usually a chorus of “Take it outside!” to shame the conversants into either silence or the hallway.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Just gave up our landline when we moved, Suzy, and I hate being tethered to my cell. I loved your description of what writing was like in the pre-computer era. Even an electric typewriter didn’t help that much. Yes, I remember the Readers Guide and laborious library research (don’t miss that). All of your examples of how technology has improved our lives were spot-on.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I started this story thinking I would wax nostalgic about the good old days, but then realized that everything I could think of about modern technology was an improvement. Except, as I just mentioned to John re the law library, and as you so lucidly describe in your story, the personal contact.

  4. Wonderful recap Suzy! And wonderful that we all can and do take photos EVERY DAY, who would have thunk that only a few decades ago?

    I do miss maps and the old AAA TripTiks but living without a GPS, impossible!.

    And I had to smile at your shot of the familiar green spine of the Readers Guide! Now it’s obsolete, but when I was a school librarian I spent hours teaching kids how to use it!

  5. Marian says:

    Oh, man, the Readers Guide? Haven’t thought about that in years. And yes, Suzy, research was way different. I used to have a special pass to Lane Medical Library at Stanford when I did editing for bio and pharma companies so that I could check all the references they included in FDA submissions. It involved poring through bound volumes and praying I could find the articles. Now I find them instantaneously online.

    • Suzy says:

      Looking at pictures of the Readers Guide online, I wanted to be sure to get one that showed those little paperback supplements, because I remember how important it was to check each one for new publications until the next hardcover volume came out.

  6. “…my parents had one when I was little.” Ooof!

    Well, Suzy, you nailed all the pros of technology! I, too, love technology, and of course I wouldn’t want to go back to the way things were, but I sure do like remembering them, which is part of why Retrospect is so much fun. We can all relate so well to this prompt! Thanks to you for continuing to make it so!!

    P.S. Hang on to that typewriter…I might want to borrow it! I actually thought about buying one recently. And a sewing machine. Nothing can replace a sewing machine, right?

    • Suzy says:

      This turned out to be a perfect prompt, regardless of whether one is nostalgic for the old days or happy with the new ones – or a bit of both. And I am so in love with the picture you created, complete with the dictionary page that has “retrospect” very prominently featured. Anybody reading this comment who hasn’t examined the image on the home page should do so right now!

  7. Suzy, this whole essay was easily relatable and well-told. But what impressed me most dramatically–and this may surprise you–is that it could conceivably have been true that “everything else was taken” except for the topic of Meroe! Unintentional humor, I guess: I am always looking for the amusing side of any situation.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Dale, glad you thought it was well-told. My humor is rarely unintentional, I am known to be funny. (My son is a professional comedy writer – where do you think he gets his great sense of humor from?) But in this case I think it is likely to have been true that the teacher had the same number of topics as students, so everything else WAS taken. Not sure why that is amusing.

  8. Joe Lowry says:

    You mention all the pluses from computers. However, the 24/7 lifestyle it has enabled can be overwhelming. Also, when they fail (like this morning for a course I had paid for), it is very frustrating. However, it did get resolved and the course was recorded so I can view it later.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Joe. Computer failure is very frustrating, I agree, but were it not for computers you would not be able to take that course at all right now. In this time of COVID I am especially grateful to be able to use Zoom and other software to do all the things that it is too dangerous to do in person.

  9. You really covered the territory on this one, Suzy. I come across the landline barrier pretty often while teaching. The compressed time overwhelms me: how can these large, apparently adult students not remember landlines? It’s not possible. Then typewriters.

    It took careful thought to remember how I used to write without computers — outlines, first draft yellow pad, second draft yellow pad, often including literal cut and paste, first typed draft/rewrite and then — only if necessary, second, final typed version. And shortcuts for every step if I didn’t like the assignment. Damn!

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, I did that literal cutting and pasting too. Then once I had a secretary with a word processor, I discovered that my cutting and pasting was a disaster for her, because she couldn’t figure out where the material had come from. So I had to use circles and arrows instead (like Arlo Guthrie).

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