The LandlineS

Landlines really were great in disasters. When the power went out in north Georgia, as it often did, the one thing you could always rely on was that basic, bare-bones, curly-corded phone hanging on the kitchen wall. How else were we supposed to call the power company to tell them the TV wouldn't turn on?

But it's basically curtains for the landline. Except for the odd flurry of pay phone activity, it's pretty obvious that the technology isn't coming back. Over a quarter of American homes were wireless-only as of 2010, and that was nearly double the percentage from three years before that. At this point, I don't know anyone under the age of 40 with a land line. If you were moving into a house for the first time, committed to a mobile number your friends had known for years, why would you take on a second bill for a home phone you'd rarely use?

Yet the fact that those people on the streets of NYC turned to the pay phones proves a basic point. Cellular networks, for all their convenience and ubiquity, are vulnerable in times of massive demand. Even when my family got our first cordless home phone, a 900-megahertz Uniden, it was never considered a real replacement for the proven power-outage performer. In fact, there was a hierarchy-the cordless phone upstairs, the corded one on the main floor, and in the basement, where we hunkered down during tornado warnings, a red rotary phone that proven itself a reliable operator since the 1970s.

The last great thing about land lines, before I finish my old man nostalgia tirade, was that they required you to be a little more reliable yourself. Not only because you had to be home to answer a phone, make an appointment, and show up on time, but because you had to actually know people's phone numbers if you wanted to make contact. You had a list tacked up by the phone, of course-but the most important numbers were committed to memory. I still remember all my childhood friends' home phone numbers. My parents' 770 line is the same as it ever was.

Today, I've gone out of my way to commit a few key mobile phone numbers to a mental directory. Calling these people all time no longer comes with the muscle memory of my fingers doing a familiar dance across the keypad. But I know the sequence well enough that I can rattle it off in an emergency. That's still necessary when the power dies and your phone can't charge up. You may find yourself dialing someone up on a street corner pay phone. And if that person still has a land line, it's a pretty sure bet you'll be able to get through.

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