Monday, September 18, 2023

"Pretend we're not home!"

tonodiaz | Deposit Photos
Oh hey, sorry, guys. I owed you a blog post last night, but I got to chatting with a friend on the phone and the evening got away from me.

One of the things we talked about is worthy of a blog post, though. (Which is good, because one reason I didn't rush off the phone last night was that I didn't have any ideas for a post.) We discovered that in both of our families of origin, it was not weird to show up unannounced on the doorstep of some relative or family friend. And they were always happy to see us. Always! They'd pull a coffee cake out of the freezer and make a pot of joe and make up the spare bed for you -- or if they didn't have a spare bed, they'd insist that you sleep in theirs.

Does anybody still do that? I mean, we visit friends and family, sure. But nowadays, we text or email first and make sure it's okay to come.

I know some of you younger folks are astonished. "So you'd just, like, show up? And they'd open the door and let you in? I know you didn't have email back in the Stone Age, but couldn't you at least call?"

Oh, you sweet summer child. Long distance was expensive. This Washington Post story from 2004 said that in 1920, it cost $250 in 2004 dollars to make a ten-minute call from New York to Los Angeles. By 1998, the cost for the same call had dropped to 50 cents. But the price didn't fall all at once -- it stayed up there for a long time. In cruising the web for some figures just now, I was reminded that there used to be tiers of long-distance prices -- daytime calls were the most expensive, evening rates were lower, and if you could stay up 'til the wee hours, nighttime rates were the least expensive. I absolutely remember waiting to make long-distance calls until after the rates went down at night. So no, you didn't just pick up the phone and call somebody. 

That 2004 WaPo article is reminding me how much the communications landscape has changed over the past 20 years. Remember the "Baby Bells"? The regional phone companies were created in the wake of the breakup of AT&T (once known as Bell Telephone) in 1982. AT&T used to have a monopoly on telephone service across the United States. But in '82, the behemoth agreed to end a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department by spinning off its local phone service into seven regional companies. A few mergers later, there were just four: Verizon, SBC, BellSouth, and Qwest. Not only did they own local phone service, they started selling their customers long-distance package deals. And they also owned chunks of the spectrum for the nascent cellphone industry.

With every innovation, long distance got cheaper. Now, almost everybody has a cellphone -- and with so many cellphone packages offering unlimited minutes, we're to the point where the term "long distance" has pretty much lost all meaning. Talk is cheap; texting and data are where the money is!

Anyway, getting back to my original point: I think it's more than the communications revolution that stopped people from making spontaneous visits like the ones we remember. While phone calls (and texts and emails) are cheap today, gas is a lot more expensive. Plus people today are just busier. We are not home a lot: we go to the gym, take the kids to sports practices and games, go shopping, have spa days. A day with zero commitments is a rare thing, both for the folks with a yen to get in the car and go visiting and for the folks who may or may not be home when they get there. Who wants to spend a ton of money on gas, only to find out you made the trip for nothing?

And I haven't even mentioned the complications of "don't come in -- the house is a wreck" and "shit, I never wanted to see this person again -- pretend we're not home!"

Not to mention how COVID put the kibosh on everything for a few years, and we're all still recovering from that. 

So was it better in the old days, or is it better today? I'm not sure. What do you guys think?


These moments of bloggy reminiscing have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe! 

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