Droppin’ a Dime

Want to know where the phrase “droppin’ a dime” on someone came from? It was what a phone call cost Back in the Day. These coeds are waiting their turn to step into iconic phone booths outside Scott Quadrangle, my old dorm at Ohio University in 1967.

They are probably waiting because you were lucky if one of the three were actually working. (You can click on the photos to make them larger.)

No helicopter parents in our day

Buddy Jim Stone, who attempts to pour physics into student heads at Boston University, was talking about “helicopter parents” the last time we got together in Cape. In these days of cell phones, email, Facebook and texting, parents are involved in their kids’ lives to an unhealthy degree, he contended: parents don’t give their kids an opportunity to solve their own problems. The world conspired to force us to be more independent, he pointed out.

  • College kids in our generation weren’t virtually connected.
  • Dorm rooms didn’t even have phones until late in my junior year. There would be one or two hall phones per floor that would be answered (maybe) by someone walking by when they rang. You might or might not get notified that you had a call.
  • There was no privacy. There was usually a line waiting impatiently for you to get off the phone.
  • Ohio was cold in the winter and it would rain for days, things that didn’t lend themselves to long outdoor conversations.
  • Long distance was exotic and expensive. You didn’t call home unless it was IMPORTANT (like, you were broke).
  • The coin-operated phones would become so stuffed with change that you couldn’t make a call until they were emptied by the phone company, something it took its own sweet time doing.
  • By the time you finally DID get around to calling home, you had probably already worked out your problems yourself (except for being broke).

Calls used to be a nickel

You can see from the instructions on the phone that “ONE nickel will NOT work. Use TWO nickels or one dime.”

I’ll never forget one telephone booth on the west coast of Florida. I had been chasing a hurricane all day, alternately being buffeted by the wind and deluged by horizontal rain. I needed to check in with my Number Two guy at home to see what was going on at the office, so I was happy to see the glow of a phone booth in front of a gas station off in the distance. I ran from the car to the booth, which was rocking in the wind hard enough to make me wonder if it was going to pull loose from its slab. Directly overhead was a huge swinging advertising sign. If that puppy snaps off, I thought, it’ll slice this booth and its contents – me – like a guillotine blade, leaving me both twice the man and half the man I started out with.

To make the experience worse, John and Susan had just adopted a baby and thought it was “cute” to have a long answering machine message that featured the baby crying. Never much fond of “cute” under favorable circumstances, I found this less than amusing while contemplating my mortality. I “gently” suggested that he go for a shorter greeting for the duration of the storm.

Other phone booths


8 Replies to “Droppin’ a Dime”

  1. I remember using a little batteyr operated dialer to make business calls long distance. You would get a dial tone, then put the dialer up to the receiver microphone and push a button; it would make the right sounds and connect you. I even used one to send those new fangled emails (long ones, long list) in the mid 90’s traveling on our tandem bicycle around the U.S.

    Yes Virginia there was life before cell phones.

    1. Bob,

      That little dialer you had was called a Spiro
      (after Spiro Agnew). I had one of those devices
      back in the 70’s. They put out a sound that imitates
      a nickel. I don’t know about now but back when I had
      one they were highly illegal.


  2. Back in the day-I guess we were lucky as we had phones in the dorms. If a fellow wanted to talk to his girlfriend, he would run up and down the floors of his dorm to find out who was talking to which girl’s dorms. When he found the right dorm, he got in line to the be the next or fifth user whatever his place was. The telephone was passed back and forth until late into the night. After all a dime was a dime!

  3. Back when I lived in E dorm on the SEMO campus in the 60’s-70’s we had a phone at each end of the 1st and third floor and a pay phone in the middle of the second floor. The campus phones didn’t work most of the time. What a set up. No wonder they tore down the old dorm because it had no wiring for phones, internet or cable TV, Wi-Fi, etc, no AC, and two electrical sockets in each room.

  4. i remember when the call went from a dime to a quarter.did the calls go from a dime to something in between 25cents?.i was working at southeast hospital,and recall the day the repair guys came to convert them.that street southeast is on still had those beautiful old homes on that hill.

  5. You didn’t have to explain “droppin’ a dime” to me. I well remember the 10 cent phone calls. The astonishing thing was when we tried to use a pay phone and it only took calling cards, no money!

  6. A couple years ago my family and I were touring around London. Our first day out we saw a traditional red phone booth down the street. I insisted we head over to it and take a family picture. As we approached I noticed the red paint was pealing. The glass windows were filthy. I looked inside booth. The phone looked vandalized. Trash was a foot deep on the floor. All the excitment went out of me. Another neglected victim of advanced technology ;-).

    My wife took a picture with her cell phone.

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