in Marginalia

Bryson on his grandmother’s crank telephone

From Corbis images

“It all seems long ago now. And it was. It was so long ago, in fact, that my grandparents had a crank telephone, the kind that hung on the wall and had a handle you turned and said: ‘Mabel, get me Gladys Scribbage. I want to ask her how she makes her ‘Frosted Flakes ‘n’ Cheez-Whizz Party Nuggets.’ Everybody listened in. My grandmother often listened in when things were slow around the house, covering the mouthpiece with a hand and relaying to the rest of the room vivid accounts of colonic irrigations, prolapsed wombs, husbands who ran off to Burlington with the barmaid from Vern’s Uptown Tavern and Supper Club, and other crises of small-town life. We always had to maintain the strictest silence during these sessions. I could never entirely understand why because if things got really juicy my grandmother would often butt in. ‘Well, I think Merle’s a real skunk,’ she would say. ‘Yes, that’s right, it’s Maude Bryson here, and I just want to say that I think he’s an absolute stinker to do that to poor Pearl. And I’ll tell you something else, Mabel, you know you could get those support bras a dollar cheaper in Columbus Junction.’ In about 1962 the telephone company came and put a normal phone without a party-line in my grandmother’s house, possibly at the request of the rest of the town. It drove a hole right through her life from which she never entirely recovered.”
— From More Fat Girls in Des Moines written by Bill Bryson and published in Granta 26, the Travel issue in Spring 1989

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  1. Even crank calls seem to have gone out of fashion. What we have now are cranky calls from disgruntled customers to telecom companies.

  2. Haha. Maybe that’s why it’s called next-generation techology. They’re waiting for the next generation to pick up the phone.