I updated the Relics: Mail chute post with slightly better photos and a new photo taken at the Garland Building in Chicago. I forgot to take a photo of the lobby box, but will. Someday. I wonder what is under the white paint, although I suspect hallway mail slots weren’t as fancy as the lobby boxes.
As usual in the Midwest, summer has brought a relentless series of watches and warnings, including thunderstorms, severe weather, flooding, and tornadoes. When a new watch or warning is issued or a current one is updated, one of my phone’s weather apps emits a submarine sound. Sometimes I feel like I’m immersed in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Not that long ago, before mobile phones, weather apps, and 24/7 cable, people got their weather news and updates from regularly scheduled radio and television news. Emergencies might warrant a crawl across the TV screen with a siren or very loud beeping. Basic, everyday weather news at 6 and 11 wasn’t enough for my dad, however. He tuned into his dedicated weather radio.
A weather radio picks up NOAA broadcasts that include arcane weather details you won’t hear on the 6 o’clock news, which you may not watch anyway because you get the news from trending topics on Facebook and Twitter. I hadn’t heard a weather radio broadcast in decades, but I remember a flat, tinny male voice, most likely not a “voice talent,” reciting a long list of current weather conditions and statistics in a monotonously soothing way. My dad could listen to this for long periods, as though he were a farmer whose livelihood depended on knowing weather conditions intimately and preparing for them. Our weather radio did come in handy a few times, such as during the Western New York Blizzard of ’77. We kept spare batteries on hand for all of our radios because we never knew when wind or ice would knock out the power.
Today I imagine a weather radio may be useful to boaters, campers, hunters and fishers, construction foremen, and anyone else whose life or work might depend on unexpected or sudden changes in weather conditions. Several years ago in Chicago, a horrendous thunderstorm with hail abruptly blew in without warning, even breaking thousands of panes of glass at Garfield Park Conservatory. If I were out on Lake Michigan in a small craft, I would have wanted to know about those black clouds darkening the western sky, how conditions were changing, and how long I would have to row my boat ashore.
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. . . . NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal.
As I said, once upon a time, the voice belonged to humans — as it turns out, the updates were recorded by staff at local National Weather Service offices, nearly all of them male. Although the voices varied, they were reassuring in their lack of voiceover-style sophistication. Today, however, the voices are synthesized. “Tom” comes closest to my memories, but still he doesn’t quite evoke morning at the kitchen table, listening to the weather radio.
Of course weather radios aren’t truly a relic. Not only can you still buy them, but there are even a number of options in a surprisingly broad range of prices (my brief search showed roughly $25 to $60, or $75 with a lithium battery). Copy for my favorite, no longer available, says: “If you’re in an area prone to occasional violent weather (and what area isn’t?) this radio can be a lifesaver.” I’m tempted.
If you have a weather radio, here’s where you can find your local weather station. Chicago’s is KWO39 at 162.550, broadcasting from Romeoville in the southwest suburbs via a transmitter at the “Sear’s Tower” (someone needs to tell NOAA it’s now Willis Tower). You can find various weather radio streams online. The KWO39 stream is available online here. (I couldn’t get the one in Buffalo to work.)
Will your eight-year-old son or daughter wax nostalgic over iffy mornings and evenings or camping trips spent listening to “Tom” or whatever synthesized voice supplants him? For myself, “Tom” doesn’t evoke strong feelings or tempt me to buy that spiffy weather radio after all. I guess I’ll just have to keep feeling like I’m aboard the Seaview.
UPDATE 7/29/2016: After the skies turned dark again, I compromised and spent $4.99 on a weather radio iPhone app. Still not the same as the radio on the kitchen counter.
I can’t count the times Garrison Keillor has worked the Lutheran compulsion to ply guests with coffee into A Prairie Home Companion. My parents weren’t Lutheran, but the moment they saw a car that looked like it might pull up in front of or next to the trailer, out came the coffee and any cookies that had escaped my foraging on the sly. It was an invariable ritual, almost as certain as death or taxes.
The first coffeepot I remember was a percolator. Although I haven’t seen one since those times, I remember that coffee percolating was a rich sensory experience — the aroma of the coffee as it percolated, the sight of the liquid shooting up against the inside of the clear lid handle, and the bubbly sound that inspired an unforgettable series of percussive notes that still evokes vintage Maxwell House coffee advertising.
I recall the parts as well — the pot, the basket, the lid, and the hollow stem through the basket, as well as the filters with the hole for the stem. For my parents, the brew of choice was Eight O’Clock coffee, bought at Loblaw’s and ground (coarse) on the spot in the store’s big grinder.
Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s when drip coffeemakers became popular thanks to Joe DiMaggio in ubiquitous Mr. Coffee commercials. My parents (most likely my dad, as he did the shopping) succumbed to the hype and bought a drip coffeemaker, which then took over a spot on the counter.
The once-simple world of American coffee has evolved into one my parents wouldn’t recognize — the latte grande, the espresso machines, the syrups and shots, the French presses, the “pound” of coffee sold in 11-ounce cans, the Keurig cups, and fussiness of it all. If you camp like a cowboy on a cattle drive (like Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty), you may still use a percolator because all you need is a fire to get a pot going (although these days Dusty and Lefty mostly find themselves in new-fangled cafés, complete with very noisy espresso machines).
Electric and stove top percolators are still sold. The most frequent comments on Amazon seem to be, “I would get one if I knew how to use it” and “Are there instructions?” Maybe it’s a sign of how in the 21st century we’ve become so used to our electronics doing the work and keeping the time that operating a simple coffee percolator seems not only different, but daunting.
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Like other men, my dad participated in the ritual of mowing the lawn a couple of times a week. For a family living in a trailer, we had a fair amount of lawn to cover, later reduced by the installation … Continue reading →
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No matter what kind of home entertainment setup you have, it probably features a clear cable or satellite picture, even if it’s not digital or high definition, and a remote control that means having to get up only for the necessities (input and output).
In the 1960s and 1970s chez Schirf, I didn’t grow up with the crisp lines and vibrant colors that Comcast delivers today to my high-definition box and 32-inch TV. To capture the available TV signals broadcast by stations in Western New York and Ontario, Canada, we used a TV antenna.
I don’t know about anyone else’s TV antenna, but ours needed nearly constant adjustment, which depended on the station we were watching. In good weather, the three major network stations in Buffalo (ABC, CBS, and NBC) came in clearly most of the time, while the local UHF stations and those across the way in Ontario were marred by visual “snow” and aural static. Depending on weather and other conditions, it might not be watchable.
That’s where turning the antenna came in.
On Saturday afternoons at 1 p.m., my dad watched wrestling broadcast by a Kitchener, Ontario station. That meant that, at some time before 1, after lunch and washing the dishes, one of us would be dispatched to turn the antenna, while some else stood near the TV and the window to call out directions: “No, getting worse . . . turn the other way . . . keep going . . . no, too far . . . back . . . that’s good . . . there!”
The antenna was at the top of a long pole set into a pipe in the ground, which I’m sure was my dad’s do-it-yourself setup. The pole was tall, the hole had widened over the years, and the antenna made the whole thing a little top heavy, especially if there was a wind. It was heavy and hard to turn, and had to be turned slowly. I remember standing outside in the weather, fighting the wind. Of course, the same wind could sometimes turn the antenna enough to make the picture snowy, and sometimes the picture would alternate between bad and worse as the wind rocked the antenna. The picture might be bad but tolerable if the program on was one you really wanted to watch. At times it would be unwatchable. When that happened, it was time to find an alternative or turn off the TV — there was no Internet to turn to.
In the early 1990s, Chicago Cable TV mistakenly cut off my cable. To my surprise, Walgreens still sold rabbit ears with a UHF loop, so I bought a pair. My apartment was at the end of a courtyard, which may have been why they didn’t work very well. I kept them until I moved in 2003, when I tossed many non-necessities. I’m not sure how they’d connect to the flat-screen LG TV I bought in July 2010.
TV antenna are still sold; the FCC provides a guide to “Antennas and Digital Television.” When I’ve traveled through small towns and rural areas, I’ve seen some antennas, although they are outnumbered by satellite dishes. I spotted these two on the return trip from Kankakee River State Park, although I’m guessing that no one has to go out to turn them and that no one has to stand inside by the window calling out directions about picture quality. And that, like the rest of us, these residents are continuing the time-honored tradition of complaining that “there’s nothing good on TV.” Whether you have eight channels or 800, there’s only so much “reality” you can take.
I’d settle for curling in Canada.
A couple of years ago in “Please Mr. Postman,” I marked the prolonged passing of the blue mailbox, no longer needed in the age of text messaging, mobile phones, and social media. Before USPS started carting the Chicago boxes off to rust at the central office (where I saw what seemed to be thousands lined up, with nothing to do and nowhere to go), another type of mail collection method had fallen into disuse — the mail chute, or Cutler mailing system.
The first mail chute I saw and used was at 200 South Riverside Plaza in Chicago, at my first job. The chute ran down the wall across the hall from the word processing room on the 37th floor. People still used it then, in 1983. Walking past it, I would be startled by the sudden whoosh of an envelope falling down the chute, presumably on its way to a collection box. Sometimes, however, someone would ambitiously stuff, say, a 9″ x 12″ envelope into the chute, which had the same effect as some boxes do in trash chutes — it would “gum up the works,” as my dad might have said.
I don’t recall if the mail chute was still in use when the company relocated to 203 North LaSalle Street in 1986. A contemporary blend of glass, steel, and atrium, this building probably didn’t have anything as quaint as a mail chute.
The Flamingo, which opened in the late 1920s, has a mail chute, although it’s closed off on the floors. I have no idea where it may have ended, as it’s west of the elevators, while the mail collection box in the lobby is on the north wall across from the elevators.
Authorized by P.O. Dep’t.
Installed under the Cutler Patents
Note that it’s not just a mail chute and mail collection box, but the Cutler mailing system. Product pretentiousness isn’t a contemporary invention.
Added 2/19/2017: You can see more examples in New York City at Atlas Obscura and learn about why mail chutes were discontinued.
Once upon a time, all Clark Kent had to do to summon his inner Superman was to pop into the nearest telephone booth, tear off his glasses (not in the careful two-handed way recommended by opticians), and rip open his shirt. (His tailor must have made a mint replacing buttons while wondering who were these women so eager to get to the nerdy reporter’s chest.)
Telephone booth? Back up. What’s a telephone booth?
Like many things associated with the traditional telephone, the phone booth is almost only a memory. Aside from Clark Kent/Superman, who needs a phone in the relative privacy of a booth when, with our smart phones, we can chat openly about our hemorrhoid surgery or latest squabble with a friend right on the bus or at our restaurant table? Access to the world is in our pockets.
The last time I used a phone booth or pay phone was in 1999, when I called a cab after my high school reunion. It was in a decaying shopping center across the road from where I used to live, and quite possibly was the only one for miles around. The last pay phone I recall seeing in Chicago was here where I live. It lasted for a few years after I moved in, but has been removed; it wouldn’t have been worth it to the phone company. I have seen a pay phone recently; it was at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana, attached to one of the buildings the attendant told us had been built during the Great Depression. I’m sorry now that I didn’t take a photo or check out the cost of a call, but it did seem to be in good shape. I wonder how much action it gets from the hunters and the visitors to the sandhill cranes, or if it’s even functional.
Mobile communications alone didn’t kill the phone booth or pay phone, although they’re clearly the primary cause of near extinction. In cities like Chicago, they were already on the endangered list, placed there by the activities of neighborhood drug dealers and other criminal types who used them to conduct business. Community members petitioned the city to have these gang and criminal magnets removed.
For fans of the classic films and TV shows, phone booths and pay phones have long been associated with crime. Calls made from phone booths and pay phones could be threats, demands (often for ransom), warnings, information dumps, or pleas for help. The dangling public phone handset became a poignant, then cliched theme. Now, having said that, I can’t think of any examples. I do remember that in Strangers on a Train the Farley Granger character has a fatal conversation with his pregnant, cheating wife on a pay phone.
Other movie characters also flocked to booths and pay phones, including reporters — which could explain Clark Kent’s predilection for them. In a film or radio program, when a big story broke frenzied herds of frantic, aggressive reporters would race to the nearest booth or pay phone to call the story in. Having gotten the scoop, the lucky ones who arrived first could gloat over their unlucky brethren, whose continued employment often depended on being able to get through to the newsroom first.
As I remember them, phone booths and pay phones came in a variety of styles, including indoor and outdoor, full sized or half, fully or partially enclosed, or open (for example, a pay phone stuck on a wall, as at Jasper Pulaski). When I was a child, a local pay phone call was a dime; later it went up to a quarter, then 30 cents, then 50 cents or more. For a toll (long-distance) call, you’d put in so much change for so many minutes. Each time you were running out of time, an operator or, later, an automated voice would tell you to deposit more or hang up. If you didn’t have more change, you’d find yourself cut off abruptly soon after the warning. Those who use their mobile phones for personal chats could learn some of the succinctness imposed by the pay phone.
A pay phone played an important role in my life. My college dormitory had two pay phones off the lounge. Before I got a phone installed in my room, I spent a lot of time in those booths calling my mother collect and pretending not to be homesick. I imagine phone booths and pay phones have absorbed a lot of very interesting and very mundane conversations and history, just like mobile phones today.
For a look at phone booths and pay phones, and some of the holdovers, check out the Payphone Project, featuring the sometimes creepy photography that abandoned human creations can inspire. The Payphone Projects quotes a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story:
The American Public Communications Council, a trade group representing about 800 independent pay phone operators, said about 425,000 pay phones remain in the United States today, down from 2.2 million in 2000.
According to Wikipedia, as of June 2011, there were 327,577,529 mobile phones in use in the U.S. alone — more than there were people.
I suppose Clark Kent has long since found an alternative changing room.
Update: Chris Burdick on Facebook:
I thought I was the last non-cell phone person, but a woman just used the pay phone near where I’m sitting. The woman dialed a number, the phone gave off a loud fax machine shriek, and the woman backed away in terror.