Thursday, September 17, 2015

I'm from the future

BCC (Before Current Career), I watched TV at lunch. Sue me.

Now I'm down to one day, Monday, and only when everything falls in place.

My appointment viewing: The Rockford Files, only the best show ever.

(No, I am not entertaining debate on the matter.)

The Rockford Files is a time capsule, as is Adam-12, Emergency! and those contemporary dramas I saw as a kid in the 1970s when Life Couldn't Possibly Get Any Better.

Through them, I get to revisit my California past, when I solved crimes, arrested bad guys and saved the nice old guy and his dog from their burning cantaloupe truck in the steep canyon.

Local cable stations push the drug of nostalgia on susceptible people like me, with a back-to-back diet of these shows on their minor channels.

There were times, I must confess, that lunch extended past Rockford and before I knew it, the final credits were rolling on Pete Malloy and Jim Reed and John Gage and Roy DeSoto, their police car and paramedic truck safely parked until the next episode.

I look past the plots to see the world of the 1970s, the flair collars and plaid sports coats, the explosive sideburns like my dad used to wear, the bell bottoms, and TV's cartoon version of worlds it didn't quite understand, like the counter-culture and organized crime and high school.

I love seeing logos for businesses that no longer exist (Esso gas stations!) and a Southern California that looks laughably uncrowded.

And the phones! Do you realize that humans used to share public phones in order to talk to one another, and operated them by depositing coins in special slots? No, I am not joking! Watch the shows for proof. Sometimes you had to wait in line to use these payphones, and people got testy.

Being from the future, I get frustrated watching these shows, for a reason I hadn't anticipated. I want to hand Jim Rockford my phone.

When the henchman from the New Jersey syndicate decides to move the millionaire's kidnapped daughter to a new hiding place, Rockford has to find a payphone to alert his worried client and convince him finally to call the police. Luckily these tricky plot changes happen within walking distance of a payphone, but vital minutes pass. If only he had a smart phone!

Of course, the overwrought millionaire/bad guy is taking the call from his car phone. That was TV's universal symbol of arrogance and power and evil, a carphone, the boat-anchor receiver attached to a ridiculously long twisty cord. That guy (it was always a guy) might be comfortable amid his rich Corinthian leather seating in his amply appointed limo, but he would always meet his comeuppance before the final credits.

Officers Reed and Malloy had their police radio, of course, and Adam-12 introduced viewers to "authentic" police dispatch chatter — "One Adam Twelve, One Adam Twelve, a Two-Eleven in Progress … One Adam Twelve, meet One Oh Nine on Tack Two." (Maybe it was malarkey, but since Jack Webb produced the show and he loved, loved, loved! cops, I'm going to say it was realish malarkey.)

But away from their cars, out on the mean streets of TV's Los Angeles, the officers were helpless — phoneless!

In one episode of Adam-12, Reed and Malloy checked out suspicious activity inside a store at night. They decided to park their car far down the street — away from their radio! — so they wouldn't tip off the Bad Guy with the Flashlight, wandering around inside.

Reed stayed in the front, Malloy went around to the back, where of course the Bad Guy tried to get away. Malloy wrestled Bad Guy to the ground, but another Bad Guy appeared. Matters had gotten out of hand! Reed ran around to the back but the second Bad Guy had gotten away!

"Get to a phone, Reed!" Malloy shouted. "We need backup!"

Get to a phone?! Are you kidding me? Standard LAPD issue must have included a sidearm, billy club and two dimes for the payphone. So Reed's got to run around in the dark for a payphone, hope it doesn't have a line in front of it already, and call for help.

I wanted so desperately to reach through time and hand him a phone. I'd probably have to show him how to use it. This Bad Guy would remain on the loose, but the next Bad Guy in the next episode wouldn't be so lucky.

I wonder: Did the world travel only so fast as the prevailing communication technology would let it? Did the second Bad Guy amble along in the knowledge that the pay phone was the fastest the police could move to chase him?

Though hardly a fan of new phones, I realize through these shows how much we take for granted. We went hours — days! — without other people knowing where we were. People didn't expect to know where we were. We called when we reached our destination. If our car broke down, well … geez, I forget what we did.

In the lonely outposts of TV world, characters had to ask permission to use a phone from the suspicious farmer, the harried gas station attendant or the corrupt but wily county sheriff.

They often had to call collect. Ask your elders.

Now everyone knows where everyone else is all the time, even in the lonely outposts. On TV, everyone has a phone, which becomes the story transporter. Tired of the scene? Make the phone ring, and the story goes instantly to whoever's calling. Plot line lagging? Pull out the phone and find out the lab results are in, another body has been found by the river, same M.O. Let's go!

The world moves faster, accordingly.

It's all good, I guess.

We can't go back, anyway. Last week, when I wasn't necessarily looking, I found a payphone in its Plexiglas®™ and metal frame, sitting on its pole against a building. As with all payphones, its innards had been ripped out.

Poor Reed and Malloy. Poor Rockford.

1 comment:

  1. So I just re-watched "Paris, Texas" (Wim Wenders, man, Ry Cooder...) -- and not only is there the pay phone, but the dude's smoking on the plane!

    "Ah, those were th' days!"