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Before smartphones, ‘checking in’ took real effort


By Charlie Sacchetti

In March of 2019, I had a follow-up appointment with my Cooper Hospital orthopedic surgeon, who had repaired my three ruptured quadriceps tendons exactly one year before. While in the waiting room, I saw eight other patients. One was sleeping, one was admiring the ceiling, and the remaining six were playing on their smartphones. As I put my semi-intelligent phone down on the empty seat next to me, I thought about the time when I had to regularly “check in” and how this tool, which we now take for granted, would have been a Godsend.

As an outside salesman since 1983, I had no employer-provided office, so it was my responsibility to contact our headquarters daily at midday and late in the afternoon. This was necessary because the only way my customers could reach me to place an order or for assistance was to call our main number. They would leave a message, and I would respond as quickly as possible. This deceptively simple process had a variety of pitfalls.

First of all, it was a miracle if you found a payphone that actually worked, since some parts of my territory were in high crime areas, and vandals considered payphones precursors to ATM machines. A screwdriver used just so was excellent for relieving the phone of

its contents. On the rare occasion that you found a one with an actual dial tone, you’d have to first check the mouthpiece. Kids liked to unscrew the bottom of the receiver and remove the amplifier, making it impossible to be heard on the other end. After getting burned a few times and realizing I was talking to myself, I started the self-check procedure on a regular basis.

Even if the payphone was in working condition, amplifier and all, there was a better-than-even chance that it was a haven for nearly every germ known to man. So you didn’t dare put the phone to your ear
if you happened to see evidence of foreign matter on the receiver. Then, of course, there was the possibility of the phone simply mal-functioning. I am not proud of it, but, in a fit of rage, I was known to bang a receiver or two onto the top of the phone after a very important call was dropped in the middle of a rainstorm. I must say, however, that even though my primal display made me feel a little better, the payphone still didn’t work, and I never got my quarters back! Live and learn.

But, in life, every torment eventually ends or at least becomes a bit more tolerable. For me, this occurred when some genius at the phone company invented payphones that were to be installed about three or four feet off the ground. When I first saw one at a gas station in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, I thought that it was custom-made and installed in case Danny DeVito came to town. However, upon further observation, I realized it was designed so that drivers of automobiles could pull up to the phone and lean out of the window to make a call. To me, this invention ranked right up there with the wheel. No more standing in the rain or snow. No, sir, I could sit in the car, in relative comfort, and still make my calls. Additionally, since these modern marvels were usually installed in high-visibility areas, there was little chance that they would be vandalized or otherwise abused. The phone company had developed a great product – one that would obviously earn revenue with low cost of vandalism repairs. Win for them; win for me. But there was even better news to come.

In 1991, something happened to me that made even the “DeVito” payphone seem so-so. My company held one of its exciting sales contests. If a salesperson met the criteria, you would be awarded a revolutionary, state-of-the-art prize guaranteed to change the world as we knew it. And that it did. You see, the contest winners were given a Panasonic EB-2501 car phone. Although big and bulky by today’s standards, to me winning that phone was like hitting the lottery. What an amazing tool it would be! No longer would I have to endure weather, filth, germs, lost quarters, or crazy people coming up to me asking me for money while I stood at the payphone. I had hit the big leagues.

I gratefully accepted my carphone at one of our sales meetings on a Saturday in July. The first call I made with it was to my wife, just after crossing the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into New Jersey and spending 20 minutes figuring out how the thing worked. But it was my second call that I really looked forward to.
The very next day, I went to see my parents in southwest Philly. At the time, Mom and Dad were both in their 80s. I parked my car right in front of their Buist Avenue home and dialed their number. Mom answered the phone in the living room, which was situated near the picture window that faced the street. I told Mom that I planned to stop by later to pay them a visit. After she acknowledged my intention, I asked her to look out of the front window.

“What are you talking about, Charlie?” “Just look, Ma.”

When she saw me on the phone in the car, her eyes opened wide in surprise and disbelief. My father abandoned his easy chair, looked at me, and gestured in a way that is best described as a warm, Italian greeting. It was a moment I never forgot. Sitting in the doctor’s office decades later, watching those six strangers play with their devices, I thought of that day and wondered if their first cellphone ever provided such a simple but cherished memory.

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