Dear AT&T: Is This the End of a Beautiful Friendship?

THE OLD COLONY AMPHITHEATRE in Valdese was where I spent Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer of 1980. I’m the blond-haired guy in back, third from the left.


Remember how you felt when a telephone number was attached to your name for the first time?

I phrased it that way because times have certainly changed since August 1980 when my name first appeared in the Southern Bell telephone listings for Valdese, North Carolina. These days anyone can walk into almost any store and walk out with affordable phone service. Those phones are called “burners” because they’re so cheap and basically disposable.

We’re assigned so many new phone numbers so often now that one definitive 10-digit string is no longer burned into our foreheads as our own personal “mark of the beast.” For that matter, I’ve probably had 666 phone numbers in my life but am lucky if I can remember the one — or two or three — I have now.

In 1980, though, the process of becoming an official Southern Bell subscriber involved deposits, credit checks, references, and even promises to name all newborn family members some variation of Alexander, Graham, or Bell. That’s why there are so many Alexes of both sexes now, and so few Grahams and Belles, because ordinary folks couldn’t afford a second kid after they’d paid for all the long-distance calls to announce little Alex’s birth.

Yes, Virginia, there were long-distance charges back then. Long-distance calls were so expensive that we couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial up friends or family members outside the county whenever we wanted, sometimes not even within our own county. There had to be a good reason — like new life or death — to incur the wrath of the Long-Distance Operator, especially before direct dialing and calling cards were invented.

AS A SHOOTING GUARD for the Western Piedmont Pioneers in 1979-80, I didn’t mind spending date nights in the gym … well, not too much.

Of course, after I’d exhausted all the local numbers of eligible dates in my little black book, I decided that having something fun to do on Friday and Saturday nights other than shooting hoops by myself at the Valdese Community Center was a good enough reason to incur at least the added expense of long distance, even if it meant doing without groceries until I paid the phone bill that month.

I had just moved to Valdese when I got my first phone. And, no, it wasn’t one that I could carry in my pocket or on my belt. It was a land line — a term that didn’t exist then — that connected my bachelor pad upstairs in the old Valdese Hardware building at the corner of West Main and North Roderet streets to the homes of all the pretty maids in a four-country area who routinely turned down my requests for dates. It wasn’t exactly a hot-line.

In fact, it was a white, push-button, wall model that was a couple of steps above the old black rotary-dial phone at my parents’ house. When I punched a girl’s phone number on that keypad, it sounded like the start of the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1976 hit song “Telephone Line,” still one of my favorite tunes. ELO singer Jeff Lynne’s opening words — “Hello, how are you?” — also helped me break the ice with any young lady or unwary parent who picked up the phone.

Luckily for me, Caller ID and Call Waiting didn’t exist back then. Well, actually, Caller ID probably would have saved me a few bucks because some of those out-of-county calls might have been ignored altogether or left for one of those old cassette answering machines with 30-second message limits to handle. On the other hand, a couple of the gals I was trying to spark might have used Call Waiting to put me on perpetual hold with the meter running so they could chat up some other guy on my dime, probably someone who lived in the same calling zone and wasn’t as vested in his call as I was in mine.

But now the love affair is over. I’m referring to my relationship with Southern Bell, who eventually became AT&T, not to my dealings with all those girls in my inglorious days of bachelorhood — except, of course, for the girl whose phone bill I’m still paying. Not an old bill, even though she and I did keep the phone lines humming between Valdese and Boone during our courtship. I managed to pay that bill off a couple of years ago after little Graham started mowing neighbors’ lawns and Belle got her first babysitting gigs.

But please don’t get the wrong idea. This breakup wasn’t about AT&T. No, not really. It was about me. And my, uh, needs. They’ve changed, you know, since my first time, way back in 1980.

I needed to stop getting monthly bills for a useless land line and for DSL internet service that really wasn’t all that good anymore. I needed to stop getting nothing but robocalls from political action committees, from the Fraternal Order of Our Girl from Ipanema and other charities, and from Nick and Dave, both of whom struggled to speak good English but still somehow knew from the other side of the world that our nonexistent edition of Microsoft Windows was out of date. I needed a break from AT&T.

So a few weeks ago when a thunderstorm knocked out our phone and internet service, and we were told that it wouldn’t be repaired for at least four more days — the third time in the past two years that we’ve had an extended outage that wasn’t winter weather related — we told AT&T to just close our account. Hasta la vista, baby Bell. And just like that, that ol’ AT&T monkey was finally off our backs — or so I thought.

Now we’re in the market for internet service that we can use wherever we might be. I’m researching mobile hotspots, device tethering, 30-gigabyte data limits, high-speed throttling after so many gigs for so much money, whose 4G LTE network is best in the mountains, and who won’t make us change Timberley’s middle name to Google or T-Mobile.

The other day I was leaning toward trying a Cricket mobile hotspot. But I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger and place the order, even though I’m sure we’re in Cricket’s coverage area. Why not? Because Cricket is owned by AT&T, whose cell towers, it turns out, are the only ones we can hit from our house.

So here’s looking at you, Timberley Alexandra Grahamina Belle Adams. We’ll always have Valdese.

2 thoughts on “Dear AT&T: Is This the End of a Beautiful Friendship?”

  1. I recently left AT&T for their rotten service and promises after being with them for years.
    Had a dish with Direct since 1996 and when AT&T bought them out…it went to crap….needless to say I’m now with Verizon cell and no cable except Hulu & Netflix…my internet is with a local company.
    I feel your pain Rahn…awesome column!

    1. Thanks, Brenda. We’re still trying to decide what to do about home internet. We haven’t had cable TV for at least 10 years — and didn’t miss it with ESPN on Sling — so I’m hesitant to subscribe to Spectrum’s cable internet and have them hook another line to the house. The last one came down in an ice storm, and we never had it replaced. First-world problem, I guess.

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