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Sixty-Something: Life Before Cell Phones and Debit Cards

T.J. Clemente

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Today what two items are more important than your debit card and cell phone? How many times a day do you use either? I use my phone to get information, check social media and emails and text messages too often every day. I pay for groceries, gas, shop at stores, and do any sort of banking with my debit card. If you are at all like me, the answer to that question is: we use them both a lot. Yet if you are sixty-something then you lived one-third of your life without either one and somehow managed.

Remember when to call someone you either called his or her office or home? For us sixty-something's dating in our late teens and early twenties that meant awkward phone calls to homes having to go through parents to talk to our dates. No texts, emails, or Facebook just, "Hello Mr. or Mrs. Muckmire. Is Betty home? This is T.J. Clemente." Then that moment of pause, remember that moment of pause?

It's hard to believe my freshman year at GWU in Crawford Hall there was one pay phone to a floor and 28 people had to share it. Many times the one pay phone on any floor might have been vandalized or just out of order. Yet we all made it to the parties, library to study, or to the "Ratskeller" at the right times! It seems now we cannot exist without knowing where our cell phone is. What I am talking about is life B.C. - that is "before cell phone." Someday I may do a column on answering machines but yes there was a time in order to talk to someone on the phone you had to talk someone else into getting the person you wanted on the phone. Lastly, remember waiting on a line to use a payphone? There was sometimes a line-up outside the telephone booth with people inside the booth franticly feeding the phone with dimes, after hearing an operator say, "10 cents more for an additional six minutes!" Then there was the sound of the money going through the phone with those clicks.

Now there are about two generations who have never experienced that phenomenon. Along with the reality of if you didn't make it to the bank on Friday there would be no money for the weekend. Back then if you had too big of a Saturday night then there was not enough cash left for Sunday. Today, at this moment in jars, drawers, in the car, and in coats, there might be as much as $100 in loose change in my home. Why? Because the coins accumulated over time and cash is so readily available with debit cards. However back in the pre-debit card era by Sunday lots of young folks hunted all around the house for that change. Many times by Sunday night, money was scarce and I was paying for pizza and a coke with quarters, dimes and nickels; especially back in my college age days. However as recent as 2004, Sam's Pizza in East Hampton was cash only. I ordered a whole pie for $22 and rushed from the Springs to East Hampton Village to pick up the so desired pie, perhaps a 15-minute drive. When I arrived at Sam's to pay, I realized I left my wallet back home. Amazingly between clothes/jackets in the car and change under the seats and in the trunk I scraped together the $22, the last $2 in pennies! The bartender at Sam's was not pleased and I was embarrassed. At the time it seemed everyone in the restaurant was wondering and watching to see if I had enough to pay.

After my dad had a stroke and heart attack in 1983 we talked him into getting a mobile phone so he could be in touch with our family business offices while he hung out on his boat getting healthy. The first phone was in a small suitcase! The second one a year or two later was the size of a shoebox. Year after year they became smaller - I believe the flip phone was the smallest in the late 1990's. Amazingly enough I still own a 1984 Mercedes 190 with a telephone in the car, not a cell phone, but a mobile phone, meaning you get hooked up to an operator via a radio line; back then that was quite a luxury. Up until 2012 someone actually still answered the phone when you dialed 0. Today I also own a 2015 VW Passat with automatic Bluetooth hookup to my iPhone for instant vocal command calls. Yes things have changed.

It's hard for me to explain before cell phone and debit card days to the twenty-something's of today whose devices are glued to their retinas and never carry or have cash and actually pay for $2 coffee with debit cards. Us sixty-something's know of the times before the cell phone and the debit card. We remember waiting on long bank lines on a Friday to get the cash for the weekend, and then being in the bank on Monday because we were out of cash from the weekend. That's just the way it was. As for what today they call landlines; they were just called "the telephone" back then. Today even I would have trouble existing without my cell phone and debit card. Yes times have changed.

Guest (Ken Kraetzer) from White Plains, NY says::
Sounds familiar, we had telephones in every dorm room at Providence in late 70s, but often waited till 11 PM to make calls when the rate dropped. Yes remember the necessity of cashing checks every Friday. But as both of our Dads were WWII veterans, remember my Mother living at military bases, talked about making a soldiers pay last a full month with few options. So it is all relative, we were worried about having pizza money, others making ends meet for a family.
Dec 4, 2017 8:31 pm


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