People forget what life was like before mobile phones. As one of the very oldest Millennials I went through high school and college without a phone. I remember the joy of looking people in the eye and breathing the air around us deeply and sitting with our thoughts for longer than a tweet.
It was the worst.
I played football in middle school would wait after practice ended from four in the afternoon until my mom could pick me up at six. The school was all locked up by then but there was this little atrium next to the gym we could access. The small room was heated and had the barest of necessities: A snack vending machine, a soda vending machine, and an AT&T pay phone attached to the wall.
A handful of kids just like me waited together. We weren’t friends but we’d chat to pass the time. Most of this chatting involved asking each other for thirty-five cents to get a soda. We always used the word ‘borrow’ but the folks doing the borrowing never seemed to do any loaning. For some reason I still know that Bryan Hammer, a white kid with short hair who was really into baseball and professional wrestling, owes me close to fifty bucks in sodas.
This wasn’t The Breakfast Club. We didn’t sit around kumbaya’ing until we bonded into a tribe like a Pacific Northwest version of Lord of the Flies. No, it was cold out. We huddled together and ‘borrowed’ thirty-five cents at a time and waited for everything to be over so we could finally go home. Instagram would have been a balm on our wounds. Facebook would have been medicine for our ills. Twitter would… well, Instagram and Facebook would have been great.
But we did have a phone. The only apps it ran were “the dial tone”. And it cost twenty-five cents just to make a phone call to anywhere. Want to call your dad to tell him you’re going to be somewhere other than he expects? Sucks to be you, you already spent your money on Dr. Pepper and now your dad’s just going to have to drive around until he sees you shivering in your No Permit sweater over a Stussy t-shirt. This was the nineties, and if you hadn’t arranged a day in advance for somebody to meet you at the right place and time, you were pretty much fucked.
So you have no Instagram, no money, lots of time on your hand, and a pay phone. There’s exactly one thing you can do: Dial 1–800 numbers.
1–800 ARMY NOW worked if you wanted to get an R. Lee Ermey figure telling you about the glory of joining up and driving tanks around. This was the Clinton years though so we were blessedly not actually fighting any war and the recruitment focused on how cool it would be to personally transform into a G.I. Joe figurine.
There weren’t too many other numbers that we could remember from television (this is how advertising used to work. Commercials would show a phone number on the TV screen and sing it and then expect you to dial it into your (rotary?) phone and listen to a sales pitch. This was still more effective than banner ads). But there was one number that every single tv watcher knew by heart: 1–800–94-Jenny.
Jenny Craig (the weight loss company) wrote this jingle in 1994. The phone number included the current year so it was super easy to remember and it was the first one most of us tried. We’d queue up at the pay phone in a line waiting for our turn to dial all of the 1-800 numbers we knew. This wasn’t a social activity. It’s not like there were Jamboxes back in the day that we could Airplay the sound through— each person carefully held the receiver to their own ear and chuckled until the recording was done and then hung up and moved to the back of the line letting the next person do the same thing.
When it was my turn I typed out the number but with a single misspelling. I didn’t know if there was one or two ‘e’s in “Jenney” so I went with two. After watching so many kids smile mildly I was stunned to hear a recording that was anything but mild.
“Welcome to 1–800-WILD-ONES where the girls are WET and waiting for you!”
That tiny typo was the equivalent of navigating to whitehouse.com back when it was a porn site. My twelve-year-old self must have turned red as a tomato as I heard vivid descriptions of what “horny sluts” wanted to do with their “mouths” if I gave them my “credit card”.
I’d like to say that, had I a credit card, I would have paid in full and taken a tour of the seedy underground that is paid phone sex. But I still didn’t quite know what sex was. I wasn’t entirely sure if the vagina was in front of a woman’s body or underneath it somewhere. I didn’t know what boobs felt like. And I sure as hell didn’t understand why all these women on the other end of the phone were wet. I got the basic idea of being wet, though. It’s where you’ve been in the rain or you just took a shower. That’s cool and all — it means these women are clean? Great, better than women covered in dirt, I guess.
I finished the recording and went to the back of the line. I told people what I’d heard and pretty soon the weight loss number was entirely forgotten and all of the kids were laughing at the silly idea of women covered in raindrops talking breathily at us and asking us for a credit card number.
This is not the story of just a few minutes of fun that I had when I was a kid. This took an hour and a half. This was how we spent not just one afternoon, but many, many afternoons. All of football season from August to late October until I could blessedly just take the school bus home and watch after-school TV like a regular kid.
So remember that the next time you see a twelve-year-old Snapping and Instagramming and developing complex empathy relationships with a large set of their peers. The next time you see them taking selfies of themselves and discovering how to relate to their body, talking to all kinds of people in near-realtime all over the world. They could be standing in line huddled in the cold for hours dialing 1–800-ARMY-NOW and 1–800-WILD-ONE just passing the time until somebody can invent a goddamned smart phone.
(This is day 7/100 in my #100day writing challenge)