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Call Me, Maybe – How Phones Have Changed

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I worked at the Vancouver Public Library as a Library Assistant. Once, for a couple of months, I was asked to fill in for someone at the library’s main switchboard. Although smaller, the switchboard looked very much like the one my Aunt, Edith Jackson, worked on. That’s her, pictured here when she was a phone operator for the Vancouver Phone Company in the 1940s.

Most people called the library to ask questions. My job was to answer the phone, and then plug the caller into the line of whatever department could answer them.

Most of the time, the caller’s questions were pretty straight forward. When was Diefenbaker the Prime Minister of Canada? I put them through to the History Department. Who painted the Mona Lisa? Arts And Literature Department. Well I knew the answer to that one, but it wasn’t my job to say it. And every now and then, you’d get a question that you really had to think about. How do you waterproof a zipper? Yes, that was an actual question from a caller I got one day.

I took a wild guess and put them through to the Science and Technology Department. Whether or not they figured it out, I have no idea.

And then there was an elderly woman, a regular who would call and yell loudly “What time is it, dear?” I would just look at my watch and tell her.

Any questions you had about anything, you could count on getting an answer at the public library.

A few years later, around 1991, I was working at a Victoria radio station in the Promotions Department, when one day my boss handed me a contraption the size of a one litre carton of milk and told me to take it with me to the promotions van.

“What the heck is this?”

“It’s a mobile phone. I might need to call you.”

“What’s a mobile phone?”

Much to my delight, I found out that I could ACTUALLY CALL PEOPLE while sitting in the van! On a phone! A mobile phone!

The order given to me was to use it for business purposes only. Predictably, the first call I made was to my husband.

“I’m sitting in the promotions van! On a phone! A mobile phone!” It was so totally cool.

When cellphones started to become more widely available, I was the first one in my household to get one. It was still pretty clunky and had an antenna so it didn’t fit easily in my purse. But, of course, the first thing I did was drive to the local mall, sit down in the food court, and call my husband again.

“I’m in the food court! On my new cellphone!”

Fast forward to today, and we rarely use our cells as phones anymore. That is, unless a scammer is calling. We don’t even think of it as a phone, really. It’s a camera and a calendar, it’s a step counter, and it’s a computer linking us to the rest of the world. It’s also something that we absolutely can’t leave the house without.

Because, you know, we might miss something. Something important. Like a Facebook message or text, or a news alert. Beep! Blip! Boing! Ding! The thing goes off at all hours and we’ve got to look. Even if it’s utterly useless stuff, we’ve got to check. Just in case.

I do remember one time being in the grocery store before I realized I didn’t have my cell with me, and I almost panicked. What if someone is trying to reach me? How will I know how many steps I took and calories were burned? What if the world ended and I didn’t know about it?

Yeah, pretty ridiculous. But I really did feel panic.

Up until this pandemic hit us, most of us were probably texting or messaging or scrolling Twitter more than we were calling each other. But when you’re in isolation or cut off from your usual group of friends and family, a voice or video call is a lot more comforting. If you have a parent in a care facility, it has literally been a life line speaking with them on the phone. Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot more people talking on their phones in the last few months.

When those in my generation were kids, if your family even had a home phone, you had to share the line with others in the neighbourhood. It was called a “party line”. You’d pick up the phone and listen first, just to make sure they weren’t using it, and then you dialed. Rotary dialed. I’ll admit, I listened in on a few neighbour’s private conversations longer than I should have back then. Hey, I was a little brat. But to be honest, the conversations I secretly listened to weren’t that interesting.

Today, every kid has their own phone. I mean, I do understand why parents would want their children to have one. You’d feel better knowing that you could reach them if you needed to. But for the kids, it’s different. They just want to have something to shoot their latest YouTube video or play their games.

Me, I like having so much information right at my fingertips. My phone is like a little pocket library, and the switchboard operator is now Google.

And I’ve turned into the old lady yelling “Hey Google! What time is it, dear?” Google doesn’t answer me unless I drop the “dear”. Little snot.

Hi Ted

One day, a few years ago, I was watching the local news on BCTV in Vancouver and they did a story on an AIDS Memorial that was being constructed on Sunset Beach, not very far from where I used to live in the West End in Vancouver.

I wouldn’t have paid much attention but for the fact that I used to live in the West End, and remembered how there was a growing gay community there at the time. This was the late 70’s, when homosexuality was only beginning to become a political and social issue. “Coming out” was not as common an expression as it is now. In the apartment block I lived in I knew several gay men, not by name, just in passing.

I worked at the Vancouver Public Library then, on the corner of Burrard and Robson. I was able to walk to work every day, three or four blocks from my apartment on Haro Street. It was a kind of lonely time for me, but I met so many wonderful and influential people at the library, people who literally changed my life. I wish I could tell them that now. And one of the most important things I learned is that libraries are not as dry and boring as you think!

The people I met there introduced me to the arts, fine wine, culture, and exotic cuisine…librarians are a lot wilder than you might imagine :-). It was an eye opening and mind expanding experience at the Vancouver Public Library and I still smile when I think about it.

And I fell in love there. Or in lust, I guess–with the security guard who worked there. He was tall, he wore a uniform and he was Swedish. What more could a person ask for? I lusted after him for four years, doing the stupidest, most juvenile things all in the hopes of getting him to notice me. Hell, I even followed him all the way to San Fransisco…

We talked a lot. I worked in the Sociology Department on the main floor of the old library, and he usually sat on his stool at the front entrance, carefully watching everyone as they checked their books out. I could see him sitting there from my desk and I spent many hours just watching him. Several times a day he would make his rounds on the other floors, ending with a sweep down the stairs of the mezzanine floor, right beside my desk. I waited and watched for that walk down the stairs, every day. Sometimes he would stop just to chat and I was in heaven.

I tried to take my coffee break around the same time he did. I didn’t always time it well, but on the days I did, I brazenly walked over and sat at his table. We chatted about a lot of things…but thinking back now, I suppose he was the one who did most of the talking. He talked about his travels to Australia, Europe, and India. He was about 16 years older than I was and everything about him seemed so mature and interesting and exotic. He talked about the music he liked (I followed him to a Harry Chapin concert once), and the books he liked (I never did get into The Hobbit the way he did, but I bought the books), and astrology and religion. One time, he revealed that he was a Tibetan Buddhist and then began to pull out a necklace from under his shirt…for some reason he had second thoughts about showing it to me and put it back. I just let the incident go because I was too polite to push him. But I was desperate to know everything about him.

I was so insanely in love (or in lust) that I would do the stupidest things…on several occasions I left notes in the pocket of his shirt down in the stacks where I knew he kept his street clothes. One time I convinced him to meet me at a local restaurant after work. I was so anxious to tell him how I felt. It was the most nerve-wracking experience I’d ever had, but I confessed. He told me that he was still holding a torch for a woman who couldn’t marry him because he wasn’t Jewish. I was crushed but it didn’t deter me for long. I was convinced I could get him to love me.

And then there was the time that I followed him to San Fransisco. He liked to go there often…he had good friends living in the city who he would stay with whenever he travelled there. The summer that I turned 21, I had vacation time around about the time that he did and I knew he was going there, so what did I do? I booked a flight to San Fransisco. All by myself. I told him I was going and where I was staying…all in the hopes that he would decide to call me and we would get together and ???

I was there for a week, staying in a motel in Palo Alto, which is quite a distance from San Fransisco as I found out. I would go out and do some kind of excursion every day, and then come back to my motel and check for messages. I never found one. I stayed in the motel at night because I didn’t feel too comfortable about the idea of going out by myself. Only a few months before I was there, a San Fransisco City supervisor, Dan White, shot and killed the mayor and another supervisor who was a gay rights activist. He was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and every night, the local news was full of images of riots called the “White Night Riots” in response to his sentence. It was a scary time to be there, but there I was.

I was booked to travel back home via the Amtrak to Vancouver. On that day,  I had to take the bus into San Fransisco to get to the train station, so I decided to go a little early and walk around the city a bit. Then I ran into the strangest event…a gay rights parade. In the late 70’s, San Fransisco was one of the first cities to hold such an event–and it was something I had never experienced before–kind of freaky, colourful, sort of wild and completely shocking to a naive goof like me. I stood at the corner of a street and stared at the outrageous show…at one point, I heard a very deep voice behind me saying “Hi”…I turned around to see a transvestite in sequins on roller skates. He handed me a pamphlet. I’m sure my jaw dropped right to the sidewalk. There were dozens of floats with wild men (women too, but not very many), dancing and gesturing and showing their oiled, tanned bodies in skimpy leather and lace and whatever else they could find to barely wear. Y.M.C.A. I had never seen anything like it. For years after, I held onto a coin that I caught when it was tossed from a float into the street–“Bulldog Massage Parlor”. Wish I still had it. My train trip back was quite an adventure too, but that’s for another story. I got home safe and sound, having never made any contact with the security guard.

Somehow or another he and I lost touch over the next couple of years. He left the library and moved on to other things. And then I left the library to move to Victoria to live with Michael, where I still am, of course.

I got a call one day from an old acquaintance from the library…she was trying to find me because of someone else who was looking for me. And then she told me that she had heard that the security guard had passed away.

Well, I was sad of course, but so many years had passed. I was happily married with my two little girls, and Ted seemed like a long time ago. Ted..that’s what I called him. But his real name was John Theodore Erickson. And that’s what I saw on that news story, a number of years later. I was watching as they told the story of the Aids Memorial being built in Vancouver. They showed footage of one of the first panels to be erected. And right in the middle of the frame, I saw his name.

I’m sure I did a double and a triple take. It was as if it jumped right off the screen, like a message from somewhere, telling me something. And then it was gone. My heart leaped. And then I started to put the pieces together. Ted was gay. And he died of AIDS. How dumb can a blonde be?

Lately, I’ve been listening to Steely Dan, to a song that I think I was listening to around the time that I had my mad crush on him. And I Googled him…and found the memorial, which is how I came across the photo I’ve attached above. If you look at it again, right about in the centre of the list, you’ll see his name.

I heard once that almost everyone in their lifetime will be touched by someone who has AIDS. I guess I’m now one of those.

Hi Ted.

IJ