LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Gabrielle Baker sat in the front seat of my car last Saturday smiling. It was the kind of grin that didn’t brush off easily and, in fact, she’d been wearing it for the past hour. It was the result of the pink rotary phone she had sitting in her lap, whose receiver she would periodically pick up and talk into before descending it back onto the hook.
She’d found the phone after a long afternoon at the peddlers mall in Lexington, a gargantuan place filled with booth after booth of used treasure. The excursion was one my sis-in-law Teresa and I had been planning for a while, and finally we had made it happen. My stepdaughter Gabrielle and my nephew Reece had come too, and we’d had a lovely time browsing, examining and debating.
It didn’t take long for Gabrielle to zero in on the rotary phones, which she found in a small number of booths. I’d introduced her to rotary while we were in the basement of an antique store in Berea a few weeks ago, and she’d gamely dialed her mom’s number to test it out. As soon as the dial started rotating back down the numbers, I remembered that sound. I don’t know what it is about that whirring that is so reassuring to listen to, but it sure is, like sipping from a bottle of childhood.
We had a black rotary phone in the basement when I was a kid, and I would prop myself on the stool beside our 1980s bar and call up all my friends. Sometimes, I would get a pencil and use that to help me dial, zipping the dial around quick and business-like, like the secretaries would do on TV shows. Half the time I would misdial though and have to start all over. Gabrielle experienced this too and commented on how easy it was to make a mistake.
“This is why generations of people have dreams in which they are trying to call for help but keep misdialing over and over again,” I told her.
She nodded solemnly.
“I can see that,” she said.
Regardless of that limitation, rotary phones are actually quite in demand — and pretty pricy. The ones at the peddlers mall ran for about $40 a pop, which in a land of $2, $5 and $10 purchases is pretty steep. But like cast-iron frying pans, which are likewise pricy, that seems to be the going rate.
As we do when we go to peddlers malls or antique stores, I told Gabrielle she could get three things “within reason.” A few weeks ago, this meant she found a Jar of Miscellaneous Items for $2.50. It was a glass jar that, from the looks of the buttons and lace you could see inside it, held a whole lot of promise. Gabrielle hauled that jar around for the next hour as we browsed, staring at it, wondering at what was inside, shaking it, asking how much longer we’d be before she could open it, her raw teenagerdom happily shed in favor of being a kid.
As soon as we got into the car, she started twisting off the top, truly beside herself to see what was inside. Soon, she was fastening clip-on earrings up and down her ears, organizing different kinds of ribbon and lace, and inspecting a miniature cowgirl hat. Then she started making up a story about who all the treasure had belonged to — a seamstress named Mary who liked to wear earrings, who may or may not still be alive but whose collection made for the Absolute Best Jar of Miscellaneous Items.
As we drove home on Saturday, a similar game emerged with the rotary phone, one in which she was a receptionist named Janet with a distinct New Jersey accent who worked for the Dr. Haizenhaufer Pill Company. Poor Janet, who had an unfortunate monotone voice, was constantly getting calls from a variety of people who were wondering when their shipments of medicine would come in. There was the guy from India who wanted 6 pounds of acetaminophen. The woman who only spoke French. The person with the wrong number. The lady suffering from depression looking for her happy pills. And finally the bird-like reporter who informed Janet she’d been randomly chosen to be featured in the newspaper and could she please tell her her life story.
Janet started filling in the blanks. She lived upstairs with her father, Dr. Haizenhaufer, whom she couldn’t stand because he was too happy. He’d had four wives, all of whom had left him because of his unrelenting joy. Janet herself had never had a boyfriend and admitted she had little hope of finding the love of her life.
As soon as the car stopped, Gabrielle flew into the house to see if the phone worked, which happily it did.
And so the excursion ended with another summer success story — a day spent in the past to get a little break from the present. And with that, I handed Gabrielle an old, blank address book I’d been keeping and she squealed at the prospect of filling it — using, of course, the contacts she has stored in her cell phone.