This website is blessed with a cadre of readers with a nexus of two endearing qualities: They use the mother tongue, which I hope is still English, with great aptitude, and secondly they have a copious recall of things as they once were in this burg, which is the foundation that keeps this effort going. Periodically they take pen in hand and shoot me an e-mail that exceeds the best stuff I’m working on in any given week. In days of old I’d play with their words and flip them around to make my own column out of them. Now in my old age I’ve decided to hell with all that charade – now, a couple times a year, I just get their permission (usually), cut-and-paste their e-mail into 12-point Times New Roman, pad it up to 900 words, add God bless America to the end and push the WordPress Publish button.
This morning’s bare-faced plagiarism arrived from my childhood buddy David Chism, whose family has lived here for over a hundred years and gave us The City of Trembling Leaves and Neapolitan ice cream, the latter by accident. David writes:
“Just a thought about a possible topic. Two weeks ago a maintenance type for ATT came by and removed the phone from the phone booth that had been outside the Chism Trailer Park office since 1927. He explained that his crew maintained as many as 6,500 payphones in the Reno area just a few years ago. Our payphone, he said, was one of only 30 left and soon there would be none, and he was being forced to retire along with the phones. The cause is the advent of the cell phone and the fact that it costs ATT about $37.00 a month to maintain a payphone, an amount that the average pay phone hasn’t produced for many years.
“I have many memories of pay phones as I’m sure you do; I remember the one on the landing of the stairs in the Majestic Theater that had the ear piece and cost a nickel. Anyway payphones are no longer; even the airport is considering kiosks where laptops can be plugged in and a courtesy phone be installed for local calls only.”
Good words, David, and thought provoking – a pay phone in continuous use for 80 years (maybe a local record?). A month ago it impacted me in the lobby of the Continental Lodge, or whatever they call it now, when I went to the payphone booth to use a phone book then make a call on my cell phone. The phones, and thus the phone books, were gonzo. Few of us miss the phones now, but those missing books really create a void.
I got a kick out of recalling the pay phone in the Majestic Theater. That classic old theater on the SW corner of Center and East First had one of those old phones with the mouthpiece sticking out of the phone and an earpiece on the end of a fabric cord. And yakking with some guys about David’s e-mail, I was reminded by a few of them that the similar pay phone at the Tower Theater, a block away, returned your nickel if you said “Ready!!” to a parent to catch a ride home during a rainstorm, then slammed the earpiece onto its hanger quickly enough. (Hey, that nickel would buy a roll of chocolate Neccos.)
Maybe now’s the time for a little phone trivia from past columns. According to John Townley’s Tough Little Town on the Truckee, Reno got its first phone in 1879, with Sparks following in 1904. One went into our firehouse in 1908, the year the first phone line was completed across America. The original company, Sunset Bell, a brainchild of Frank Bell who was a shirt-tail relative of Alexander G.’s, became a Pacific Bell unit in 1913. The dial phone originated in 1929. Some of the numbers we found valuable were “POPCORN” for Information, which was then free, and would later become “411” (there’s a cool blue license plate in Reno, W411, that belonged to a local corporate director of information; a great insider gimmick to older residents.) In 1956 they tried a local “116” as a precursor to 911. We could also dial 1-1-9-1 then hang up, which would make the phone ring. This feature was designed so folks on a party line could call each other, but was also handy for rattling your little sister’s cage into thinking that someone might actually be calling her for a date.
Now and then an old phone number sneaks into the column – a few weeks ago I printed a Justice of the Peace’s 1948 four-digit home phone number – and those inclusions prompt inquiries about digits and prefixes. My own 1945 childhood number, 5865 became 2-5865 in 1951; in 1960 it became (FAirview) FA2-5865 and in 1964, 322-5865 and stayed such ‘til 2004. Neighboring offices became ELgin (Sparks), GRanite (Carson City), LIberty (Lake Tahoe) and FIreside (Stead AFB and the North Valleys.) One final bit of trivia: How many of your parents had a phone number that matched their car’s license plate, like John and Chetty Sala’s W5016? Quite a few, I’d imagine.