Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I worked at the Vancouver Public Library as a library assistant. Once, for a couple of months, I was asked to fill in for someone at the library’s main switchboard. Although smaller, the switchboard looked very much like the one my aunt, Edith Jackson, worked on. That’s her, pictured above, when she was a phone operator for the Vancouver Phone Company in the 1940s.
Most people called the library to ask questions. My job was to answer the phone, and then plug the caller into the line of whatever department could answer them.

Most of the time, the caller’s questions were pretty straight forward. When was Diefenbaker the Prime Minister of Canada? I put them through to the History Department. Who painted the Mona Lisa? Arts And Literature Department. Well, I knew the answer to that one, but it wasn’t my job to say it. And every now and then, you’d get a question that you really had to think about. How do you waterproof a zipper? Yes, that was an actual question from a caller I got one day.
I took a wild guess and put them through to the Science and Technology Department. Whether or not they figured it out, I have no idea.
And then there was an elderly woman, a regular who would call and yell loudly “What time is it, dear?” I would just look at my watch and tell her.
Any questions you had about anything, you could count on getting an answer at the public library.
A few years later, around 1991, I was working at a Victoria radio station in the promotions department, when one day my boss handed me a contraption the size of a one-litre carton of milk and told me to take it with me to the promotions van.
“What the heck is this?”
“It’s a mobile phone. I might need to call you.”
“What’s a mobile phone?”
Much to my delight, I found out that I could ACTUALLY CALL PEOPLE while sitting in the van! On a phone! A mobile phone!
The order given to me was to use it for business purposes only. Predictably, the first call I made was to my husband.
“I’m sitting in the promotions van! On a phone! A mobile phone!” It was so totally cool.
When cellphones started to become more widely available, I was the first one in my household to get one. It was still pretty clunky and had an antenna so it didn’t fit easily in my purse. But, of course, the first thing I did was drive to the local mall, sit down in the food court, and call my husband again.
“I’m in the food court! On my new cellphone!”
Fast forward to today, and we rarely use our cells as phones anymore. That is unless a scammer is calling. We don’t even think of it as a phone, really. It’s a camera and a calendar, it’s a step counter, and it’s a computer linking us to the rest of the world. It’s also something that we absolutely can’t leave the house without.
Because, you know, we might miss something. Something important. Like a Facebook message or text, or a news alert. Beep! Blip! Boing! Ding! The thing goes off at all hours and we’ve got to look. Even if it’s utterly useless stuff, we’ve got to check. Just in case.
I do remember one time being in the grocery store before I realized I didn’t have my cell with me, and I almost panicked. What if someone is trying to reach me? How will I know how many steps I took and calories were burned? What if the world ended and I didn’t know about it?
Yeah, pretty ridiculous. But I really did feel panic.
Up until this pandemic hit us, most of us were probably texting or messaging or scrolling Twitter more than we were calling each other. But when you’re in isolation or cut off from your usual group of friends and family, a voice or video call is a lot more comforting. If you have a parent in a care facility, it has literally been a lifeline speaking with them on the phone. Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot more people talking on their phones in the last few months.
When those in my generation were kids, if your family even had a home phone, you had to share the line with others in the neighbourhood. It was called a “party line”. You’d pick up the phone and listen first, just to make sure they weren’t using it, and then you dialled. Rotary dialled. I’ll admit, I listened in on a few neighbour’s private conversations longer than I should have back then. Hey, I was a little brat. But to be honest, the conversations I secretly listened to weren’t that interesting.
Today, every kid has their own phone. I mean, I do understand why parents would want their children to have one. You’d feel better knowing that you could reach them if you needed to. But for the kids, it’s different. They just want to have something to shoot their latest YouTube video or play their games.
Me, I like having so much information right at my fingertips. My phone is like a little pocket library, and the switchboard operator is now Google.
And I’ve turned into the old lady yelling “Hey Google! What time is it, dear?” Google doesn’t answer me unless I drop the “dear”. Little snot.
Irene Jackson is a guitar teacher, musician and general writer “wanna-be” living in the beautiful city of Victoria, B.C. Her website is at irenejackson.com.
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