OK, I’m going to mention something that is sure to date me. It probably won’t make a bit of sense to anybody born after about 1950. Party-lines. I don’t mean the codified renditions of official positions taken by political parties. I’m talking about the shared telephone lines that were once common in small towns and rural areas. Party lines are among those obscure and fleeting little bits of recent history that will merit merely a footnote like eight-track tapes and leaded gas. The only reason that I mention party-lines now is because it occurs to me that the internet is quite similar to them. Party lines were more than a minor technological inconvenience, they were a structural influence on our culture and like the internet, they were an eavesdropper’s dream.
I remember my surprise the first time that I picked up our family telephone to listen to the dial tone as was my custom when I was about three or four years old, and instead heard voices in a conversation. My mother had to explain to me that we shared our phone with the Greens down the street and the Anderson’s in the next block over. We knew if there was chicken pox at the Green residence and when Mrs. Anderson had a few too many on top of her sleeping pills. We were told in the name of good manners to hang up if we heard voices instead of a dial tone but there is something so compelling about listening to the candid conversations of semi-strangers that I would cover the mouthpiece with my hand and breathe quietly and eavesdrop. After a couple of seconols Mrs. Anderson was prone to slurred rambling epics of neighborhood gossip that I found to be quite informative as a first-grader. All I knew about the class struggle in those days was the glaringly unfair and arbitrary political division between children and adults. I felt duly oppressed as did my contemporaries. We kids had more solidarity than the adults and our intel was critical as it is to all insurgencies. One of my duties as I saw it in my six-year-old romantic mind was being a party-line spy.
I knew the name of Minnie Baker’s podiatrist and when her bunions were acting up. I heard of divorces and threats of divorces. Mrs. Anderson was easily as entertaining and informative as the Huffington Post or the National Enquirer. Her theory that Johnny Barnes was adopted and was really his older sister’s illegitimate son provided lively discussion. I labored through two live births and one Caesarian section on that party line. I suffered through chemo with Ethyl Johnson.
Even such a small thing as the accidental network of a party-line made a difference in the community dynamics of our neighborhood. It was an anonymous and surreptitious way of knowing our neighbors. The internet is like being on a party-line with the whole world. Any time that you log on you are likely to hear the conversations of strangers offering up their opinions on every topic possible in human discourse. And it’s amazing what people are willing to disclose even without barbiturates. I was shocked to hear some of the things that people said when they only had a semi-reasonable expectation of quasi-privacy on a party-line. On the internet only a fool assumes any possibility of privacy and yet we seem willing to publish embarrassingly intimate details of our personal lives on a Facebook status message. I know when Hillbilly Cousin is cooking collard greens and what Janie P. Crabtree’s set list will be tonight when she plays her dulcimer at the Angry Dove coffee house. I’ve suffered through chemo with half-a-dozen kids complete with snapshots since joining Facebook.
Gossip outsells straight news any day. I’m enough of a journalistic realist to make this observation. The subject matter is more lurid and tantalizing but the power of gossip also lies in the method of it’s transmission. Shakespeare understood this basic dramatic rule, the one that says that something which is overheard has a more profound impact than a simple declamation. Think of all the scenes where someone is listening from side-stage or from behind a curtain. It’s the same dynamic that we experience when we are spoken about in the third person while we are in the same room. It’s also why negative gossipy political ads work. In theater, the Chorus performs the function of presenting the illusion of a group consensus as well as a running commentary of the action onstage. This powerful device is called group agreement and it is used to underline and emphasize a message by giving it the validity of a group’s attention. If everyone is saying it, it must be true, etc.
So, it was a nasty blow when I heard Mrs. Anderson talking about me one day in reference to one ‘tow-headed little smarty-pants.’ My ears burned. Was this what everybody thought about me? Maybe she was right, I had blonde hair to be sure and I considered myself to be smarter than your average bear. But hearing it, no, Over-hearing it, stated in such unsympathetic terms, was a shock to my young ego. It also introduced me to what I came to call ‘the power of the party-line.’
In my more cynical moments I think that the party-line is really not extinct but has cleverly mutated into the internet. And when I say mutated, I mean it in the B science-fiction movie sense of the word complete with giant locusts hyped up on radiation steroids that spin frothy smothering webs and turn us into voyeuristic marmalade with their saliva. Gossip now moves at the speed of light. Not only that, it’s also recorded. It’s in print or posted on YouTube and can be re-played again and again and forwarded to your entire network of friends. The party-line has turned into an epidemic franchise monster whose slimy tentacles creep up the optic nerve where they may lie dormant for a generation in the post-reptilian brain-pan server just simmering like some gargantuan gumbo before it spurts viral onto the cool, flat screen of the modern imagination. Pardon my rhapsody, but the party-line power was upon me and it has strange effects upon poets.
The next time you flip open your iPhone take a tip from The Poet’s Eye, remember that it’s a party-line.
People say believe half of what you see,
Son, and none of what you hear.
I can’t help bein’ confused
If it’s true please tell me dear?
I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine.
Oh I heard it through the grapevine,
Oh and I’m just about to lose my mind.
Honey, honey yeah.
—Marvin Gaye (Whitfield/Strong)