Stories From My Father: Walking Across Vermont: The Payphone

In my father’s younger days, he decided to spend a summer walking across Vermont. Vermont is a small state, and walking across it the short way (as he did) wouldn’t take three months unless he dawdled along the way (which he did). My father has a number of stories from that summer, where he drifted from place to place and got to see a part of the Northeast Kingdom we don’t see anymore, because it’s gone. Dairying was still big in Vermont then, and he spent a few nights in sheds, and worked his way to breakfast by helping out at the morning milking.

He meandered through a variety of towns large and small and met all sorts of interesting people, working his way across the state with odd jobs and oddments, from helping reorganise the archives in a history museum to mowing lawns to fixing the occasional stalled or recalcitrant truck. I think my father must have been in college, then, and this may have been the summer before graduate school, although it’s a bit hard to pin down; each time he talks about walking across Vermont, the year seems to shift a bit, as do the companions he encountered along the way.

At any rate, for a week or so he hung out around a small town pub/bar sort of thing, washing dishes. I’ve forgotten the name of the town, if I ever knew it. Every night he’d split his time between kicking his feet up on the stools with the locals, and washing dishes in the kitchen to pay his way. It was an off the beaten path sort of place, and people from out of town were unusual, but in their generally laconic way, the Vermonters didn’t express all that much curiosity about my father.

One night, on towards closing time, the door blasted open and a trio of disoriented and deeply unhappy-looking New Yorkers blew in. This was the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so people would have known these people were from out of town even if they weren’t so obviously from New York, from the tips of their toes to the ends of their hair. They paused expectantly in the doorway of the bar while the crew of old dairy farmers viewed them skeptically, and there was a brief jostle between the visitors as they clearly debated among themselves about whom to appoint as their representative.

Recognising a kindred spirit in my father, one of them approached him and explained that their car had broken down, and they needed to find a service garage. My father nodded, and various people chipped in with their recommendations, and eventually it transpired that the local mechanic was in the bar, and he went out to the car to take a look while the other two New Yorkers stood uneasily at the end of the bar, not really sure what to do with themselves.

Eventually, one of them mentioned that he’d like to make a call, because they were expected somewhere and they’d obviously be running late. This was an era when not many people had phones, which gave everyone present a pretty good idea of the social status of the New Yorkers, but the bar did indeed have a payphone, and my father directed the man to the back of the bar before returning to his station at the kitchen sink. The New Yorker clomped through the hallway, past the mop closet, and rounded the corner to the payphone, at which point a bellow of rage broke out.

The fuck,’ shouted the New Yorker, ‘is this?!’

The occupants of the bar stampeded into the hall, burning with avid interest about what the man had encountered. Perhaps a drunk had washed up in the hall, as occasionally happened, and was sleeping it off in a curl of beer distributor’s boxes and cases of napkins. Maybe someone’s chickens had gotten in through the back door again, also known to happen. When they arrived in the annex with the phone, however, everything appeared normal. The outraged New Yorker was standing with a shocked and deeply upset expression, however, and a concerned party asked him what was wrong.

‘What is this,’ the New Yorker said, pointing at the phone, a standard no-dial model installed by the phone company.

‘It’s, er, a phone,’ someone said, filled with pity for the New Yorker who had never seen a phone before. So much for the heady sights of the big city, if they didn’t even have phones!

‘It don’t look like any phone I’ve ever seen,’ he shouted. ‘How the fuck are you even supposed to use this?’

The Vermonters looked at each other. How does one explain the operation of a telephone to one who has never used one before? The senior member of the group eventually stepped forward, and made sure to speak slowly and clearly, with gestures, as the New Yorker clearly had led an underprivileged life and should be treated gently.

‘You pick up the receiver,’ he said, ‘and you wait for Betty, and then you tell her which exchange and number you would like to call. You do know the phone number? Once you do that, she will put you through, and when you’re done, you tell her you’re all finished up.’

The New Yorker appeared aghast, but followed the instructions and successfully placed his call while everyone drifted back to the bar and a lively discussion began about the New Yorker who had never seen a phone before. My father drifted out into the dining room and listened with interest as the Vermonters relayed the tale to him.

‘Ah,’ my father said. ‘Well, you know, in the city, they don’t have operators.’

‘How the heck are you supposed to place a call, then?!’ one of the Vermonters asked.