The house I grew up in was a two-flat, three if you count the basement. I lived on the main floor with my parents and my younger sister Michele, and my grandmother lived on the upper floor. Technically, it was considered a “finished attic” because it didn’t have its own exterior entrance. But she had a full kitchen, dining room, living room, and two bedrooms.
My maternal grandmother was an Italian immigrant, right off the boat. It actually took her three attempts to enter the country. Records show she came over with her father in 1920 and 1921, and was sent back both times for unknown reasons. She finally succeeded in 1933 after most of her family was already settled in Chicago. When my parents got married in 1962, she came along as part of the deal.
Grandma Mary spoke broken English peppered with Italian obscenities. One of the best things about growing up with her is that I developed an ear for the dialect. It came in handy when teasing her, which I did frequently. We all did. Much in the way normal families instill values like affection, trust, and enthusiasm for athletics, our family dynamic nurtured sarcasm. Grandma gave as good as she got.
One of the luxuries we enjoyed was having multiple telephones in the house. At the time, if you had telephone service, any phones you had were owned by the telephone company and leased to you. If you wanted additional extensions, you had to lease more phones from Bell and be charged monthly for them, so it was an expensive proposition. (Consumers weren’t able to legally purchase their own phones until 1983, after the Bell monopoly was broken up.) Nearly everyone we knew had only one phone in their house, a big, heavy rotary dial desk phone. Some were wall-mounted, which you could do if you had really sturdy anchor bolts.
My father was a technical writer for Automatic Electric, which manufactured telephone equipment. He was able to snare “extra” phones from work, so we had a phone connected in each bedroom. These were the sleek, modern “Trimline” phones, still the size of a hoagie, but stunningly chic for the early seventies.
These extension phones did not ring. My father said that the phone company could measure the total voltage draw on the line when a call came in, and they’d be able to detect the extension phones if we let them all ring. So he disconnected the wire between the transformer and ringer on our bootleg phones, rendering them silent. I don’t know how vigilant the phone company was about monitoring for this, but we never got busted.
Only two phones rang – the main phone in our kitchen, and my grandmother’s extension upstairs. My grandmother did not get a lot of calls, and she didn’t make that many either. I know that on the occasions that she would call the old country, it was a major event and would be planned weeks in advance, given how expensive international calls were at the time. It didn’t happen more than once a year, if that often.
If we did happen to get a call for my grandmother, we’d use our intercom system to notify her – opening the hallway door and yelling up the stairs, “GRANDMA! PICK UP THE PHONE!”
For some reason, my grandmother became paranoid about her phone calls. She didn’t trust us to tell her, as if we were just hanging up on people who called for her (“Sorry, she’s dead. Bye.”). So she started monitoring all incoming calls. She would hear the phone ring a couple of times and then stop, meaning we’d answered it downstairs. Then she’d wait a few seconds and pick up her extension to find out who it was.
This was rather annoying for me and my sister when we’d get calls from our friends. (Well, I suppose it annoyed my sister since I didn’t have any friends.) Everyone who called the house regularly knew that they’d get about twenty seconds into their conversation before being interrupted by an old lady with a heavy Italian accent. “Michele? Who is it?”
One day when I was in high school, I was having a conversation with one of my classmates, a kid named Bill. We weren’t close, didn’t hang out after school or anything, but I knew Bill played guitar and was kind of a burnout.
(I know people tend to look back on this era through rose-colored glasses, but I assure you that marijuana use among young people was fairly pervasive in 1980. It’s not something that just started after Obama got elected.)
Anyway, Bill and I were talking about something and I don’t remember specifically what it was, but apparently we found some common area of interest, and he asked for my phone number so we could talk more about it later on. I wasn’t sure I fully trusted him, but I gave him the number, figuring he’d probably forget all about it or lose it.
He called the next evening, Friday, stoned off his ass. He didn’t identify himself but I recognized his voice, slurred and incoherent as it was. Finally, I asked him, “What do you want?”
“Pussy,” he replied.
I then heard my grandmother on the extension. “Mikey, who is it?”
“It’s for you, Grandma,” I said, and hung up.