Philadelphia, PA – March 1978
Does anybody remember your first phone number? Of course, you do. As children, our parents drilled it into our heads. Mine was RA8-7275.
No area code. Just a number that usually started with letters. RA 8 stood for Randolph 8. Which I’m assuming was some sort of regional exchange thing.
Our home number was very similar to the one at old Eric Twin Theater up near the Roosevelt Mall. Their number was RA8-7575. Different by one digit. Sometimes people would call our number by accident looking for movie listings and showtimes. This happened more often than not. One day, some stranger rang our house, and I simply read the listings for the movies out of the newspaper to them. It was fun!
Did you ever pick up the receiver on your old rotary phone and somebody was just… there? That was weird. Phones lived in a world all their own.
But during this time there was also a thing called Party Lines, or Loop Lines that existed.
Party lines were very common in the first half of the 20th century, especially in rural areas and during the war years when copper wire was in this short supply. A party line was a local telephone loop circuit that was shared by more than one subscriber. There was no privacy on a party-line; if you were conversing with a friend, anyone on your party line could pick up their telephone and listen in. Also, if anyone on your party line was using their phone, no one else could make a call—even in an emergency situation. (There was this law that made it mandatory for all parties to hang up if someone announced they had an emergency, but that didn’t mean everyone complied.) Subscribers could pay an extra monthly fee to upgrade to a private line, and once services such as call waiting became available, most of the switching equipment required to maintain multi-party lines was rendered obsolete—and private lines became the standard.
Pipeline/Jam Line/Beep Line/Loop Line
Thanks to a quirk of the old analog system, savvy phone customers had access to “chat lines” long before that term was coined. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Bell System started implementing their new Electronic Switching System, and during that lengthy and elaborate process, the modern switches were installed parallel to the old mechanical devices already in place. As a result, a loop was created so that when a circuit was overloaded, people could talk to one another either between the beeps of a busy signal or during the spaces between a repeating “Your call could not be completed as dialed” recording. It didn’t take long for teens to exploit this easy and cost-free (you didn’t get charged for an incomplete call) way to talk to a whole horde of people. The key was that a lot of people had to dial the same number in order to properly overload the circuit. The phenomenon was called different things in different locales—the Jam Line, the Beep Line, and the Pipeline.
Clare was a lovely girl I met on my rise to greatness. (When I say, greatness, I simply mean I was finally crawling out of puberty and beginning to resemble a human being) My friend Anthony Verillo gave me a list of phone numbers that I could call and meet girls on. I had known him since I went to Lawndale school. We were sophomores at Frankford High now. This all seems insane now. But there was a thing that exists in the ’70s called the loop line. Anthony never told me where he got the list of numbers, and I didn’t ask. It was just something that came up one day while we were chatting in the lunchroom at school. He had the numbers and explained to me what to do. I copied them into my notebook.
You actually pick up your phone on your landline at home and dial a number and there are a bunch of kids on that line who can talk to each other. I didn’t even know what it was or how it worked. Sometimes you’d call a number and no one would be there. You’d wait for a while and maybe someone would come on the line. If it was a boy, you might just hang up, or chat for a bit. But for the most part, it was kids looking to meet members of the opposite sex.
It was some open lines in the Bell Telephone system where you could dial into numbers and talk to strangers.
I chatted with a few people. Think about it. You dial in and the line would be totally quiet. Then you would hear a click and say hello. Someone would be on the other end of the line. It was kind of 1970’s precursor to Tinder!
It was over forty years ago. Kids going on the landline phone at home and meeting other kids. Does anybody remember this?
That’s where I met Clare. The pretty slender schoolgirl from St Hubert’s High school. Was this for real? We connected on the loop line and exchanged phone numbers. She seemed nice enough.
We set up a day to meet. She started walking south down Cottman Avenue west and I started walking east. She lived further east in Northeast Philly than I did. Up around the Roosevelt Mall area. I lived on the western edge in Lawndale near Cheltenham. (Just across the tracks!)
It was a long walk on foot. But I really wanted to meet her. Back then you didn’t even know what the other person looked like. Before you left your house you had to call them and tell them that you were leaving now, and had to describe what you looked like, and what you were wearing.
Remember those days? “Yea, I have blonde hair, a black leather jacket, and jeans on.” That pretty much fits everybody walking around back then.
The great thing about modern technology is, you take it for granted if it’s working correctly. We live in a totally different world now.
Our paths finally cross and we meet. Claire was a cute girl. She looked sweet in her school uniform. She said she didn’t like wearing it because in the winter because her knees would get really cold.
This is uncharted territory for me. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m fresh off going on a couple of movie dates in Wildwood the summer before.
We go back to Clare’s house and go into her basement. It was a pretty cool space because like our basement, it was finished and was like a rec room.
We listen to the record, Kiss Alive One. Nobody in my neighborhood was really into Kiss except Jimmy Hunsinger. I grew to like their music after hearing this live record. They weren’t by any stretch as good as Aerosmith, but it was an interesting gimmick. The guys wore makeup and had never been photographed without it. So It was kind of cool that they had secret identities like the superheroes in the comic books.
Clare ends up giving me the record. That was such a sweet gesture. I really started to like the band Kiss after that. It’s a great record!
I tell Clare I’m in a band, but it’s a lie I’d been telling for two years. I did it just to impress girls because it’s what I wanted to be but was not. I was a failure. Nothing. A liar and a loser. That was me.
But I knew somehow I would become my dream. I just needed the chance to make it happen. That dream would come to fruition six months later! (But that’s another story)
We continued to chat on the phone after that first ‘date’ and saw each other on a regular basis after that. It wasn’t like she was my girlfriend, because she lived so far away and went to a different school than me. We would write letters to each other all the time, even though we were only a few miles away from each other. (We wrote a lot of letters back then. I miss doing that!)
We would walk around my neighborhood and basically look for places to be alone.
We would sit on the steps of the church over at the top of the hill on Levick Street, near Melrose Country Club, or wherever we could hide and make out. We would literally spend hours making out. One of our favorite spots was this doctor’s office that was in this big building at the corner of Magee and Rising Sun Aves.
At the time it had huge hedges around it, so you could just sit on the steps and chat, and no one could see you from the street. Back then you could just hang out and kiss. It was new, exciting, and completely innocent. Just something you were both compelled to do.
I loved making out with Clare. She was the first girl with whom I shared that activity in my life. I had kissed a couple of girls down the shore, but this was different. It was glorious!
Funny, I never thought of the notion of finding out a way to have sex with Clare. It almost never entered my mind. I don’t think either of us were mentally ready for that. It was just fun to kiss her. That’s about as sexually advanced as I was. I knew the mechanics of sex, but I wasn’t ready to have sex with a girl yet. Logistics was a factor and so was fear on many levels. I think back on it now, and I know that Clare would have been totally down to get it on with me.
Cute couple! Look at that fake leather jacket! (Pleather!) It even came with a little yellow comb. The Fonz was big back in the 70s!
I think time and distance eventually broke the relationship. But now that I think about it, even back then, I liked to keep women I liked at a distance. I wanted a cute girlfriend to kiss, but I think Clare got really clingy. She was coming down to my neighborhood too much and I got tired of her. She would just show up and knock on my door. That started to get on my nerves. It seems my best relationships are long-distance.
I guess you could say she was my very first girlfriend. A girl named Terri, whom I met the summer before in Wildwood was just a date, (I loved Terri though) and maybe a few other girls at the shore were dates. There was a 16-year old girl named Anna Marie I also met the previous summer. She was a girl I went to the beach with and we made out. I liked her but I never considered her a girlfriend. Just a fun older girl to hang out with. (I don’t know… I was 15!)
Clare and I sort of drifted apart. I don’t even remember us breaking up. We were only fifteen. She lived pretty far away, the summer happened and I went to the shore. Once summer hit and people went away, all bets were off.
I did run into her on Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, NJ that summer. I remember my older sister coming home and catching Clare and me in the dark on the sofa making out like crazy. Teenagers!
Here’s how she looked by that summer. Different hairstyle. Cutie!
(How about those plastic slipcovers on that sofa? No house in the 70s with kids was complete without those things. Remember in the summer when it was hot and your legs would chirp as you tried to get up from the couch?)
Now that I write this I realize that Clare was kind of my first girlfriend. I can’t believe I missed that. I wonder what she’s doing today? Probably married with a few grown kids.
I hope she’s happy and healthy.
Clare Renner, if you ever read this… Thank you for your love and affection. I still have all the letters you wrote to me.
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