Party lines were chance to work in a commentPublished 11:07am Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Echoes from the Loafers’ Club Meeting.
“I can’t remember anything today.”
“Some days are like that.”
“I hope I’m not losing my mind.”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’re probably just stupid.”
Driving by the Bruces
I have two wonderful neighbors — both named Bruce — who live across the road from each other. Whenever I pass their driveways, thoughts occur to me, such as: the best gardens grow in January’s catalogs.
A traveling man
I was staying in what was an old farmhouse until the city of Sterling, Ill., grew around it. The house is offered as quarters for wayfaring strangers. I arrived late in the evening before giving some talks the next day. I had been supperless or dinnerless — at least without an evening meal. I’d stopped at a store and picked up something to eat in my room — a couple of Colorado peaches and a smoothie made from strawberries, cherries, plums, apples, purple carrots, red beets, sweet potatoes, sweet corn and chick peas. I had just finished my splendid repast and was enjoying some hot tea while jotting things down into my composition book, when I noticed it. There on the floor below the lowest door hinge of the closed door was a sizable lump. I walked to it and could see that it was a wallet. It was much too large to be mine. I picked it up. It was much too heavy to be mine. It could have been used in a weightlifting class. I opened the wallet and discovered that it was the property of a lawyer from North Carolina. There was a wad of cash thick enough to choke two horses. I counted $300 and would have had more counting to do to arrive at a final figure. The man in North Carolina now has his wallet and its complete contents back. He’d lost it over a month earlier. When he learned that his wallet was on the way, his comment was, “Are you kidding me?”
A sweeping glance
I was manning a broom. I thought of an aunt who made a list of things to do each day. She wrote it in the dust on her furniture. Cleaning the house never made her list of things to do. I had spilled some birdseed that needed to be corralled into a dustpan. I swept the floor vigorously. Detritus found its way onto the dustpan. I picked up the dustpan, planning to toss the seeds outside where the birds might eat them. In that process, I noticed that there was a line of dirt that had abutted the edge of the dustpan, but refused to join the rest of its ilk. I swept again. A line remained. I repeated a number of times. The only thing that changed was the location of the dirt. It was dustrating.
Beth Horner of Wilmette, Ill., told me that when she was a girl, her family had a party line telephone. Anyone on the party line could pick up the receiver and listen in on a conversation. That was called “rubbering.” Now we have cellphones that are not on a party line, but we are allowed to rubber their phone discussions whether we want to or not. The mention of a party line reminded me of a Hank Williams Sr. song titled “Mind Your Own Business” that goes like this, “Oh, the woman on our party line’s the nosiest thing. She picks up her receiver when she knows it’s my ring. Why don’t you mind your own business. Well, if you mind your business, then you won’t be minding mine.”
Beth told me that hers was an eight-party line. She said it was like having an extension phone in seven other homes. Phone subscribers were grouped together on a line. Each was assigned a calling signal of a certain number of long and so many short rings. You could call anyone on your line by ringing his or her ring. To call a party on another line, you had to go through “central.” When the operator answered, you asked for your party. There were those curious people who quietly lifted the receiver and listened in on the conversations of others. My father knew that a woman rubbered on his party line. Let’s say her name was Bertha. At the completion of his call, my father would say, “Goodnight, Bertha.” When he encountered her later in person, he could tell that she was furious with him, but she couldn’t tell anyone why.