The Bakelite Telephone
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
There is a Bakelite telephone in my living room. It sits unplugged on a shelf in the house I share with my wonderful, and above all patient, wife. It makes me sad every time I walk past and see it, but I can’t get rid of it. I wrote the following story to explain why.
For anybody who doesn’t know, a Bakelite phone is one of those heavy antique black telephones with a rotary dial, the kind you’d see on Humphrey Bogart’s desk in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (I assume), or to reference a movie that I’ve actually seen, Bob Hoskins’ desk in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’
I know that it’s a Bakelite phone for the same reason I know that a bed with no footboard or headboard is not a bed at all, but a divan. The same reason I know what a davenport and a thunderbox are, the same reason I called it the ‘Sitting Room’ instead of the ‘Living Room’, and the same reason I know many, many antiquated racist slurs - outdated not only by being racist, but also because they’re the bigoted equivalent of exclamations like “gadzooks” and “heavens to Murgatroyd”. I know all these things because I learnt them from my father, who was born in 1933.
Dad was a hoarder, the kind you’d see while watching a reality show to get a glimpse of someone else’s misery and thereby feel a bit better about yourself. I grew up in that very misery! On occasion, his tastes were admirable. On one end of the hoarding spectrum, he was praised by 24 Hours magazine for his enormous collection of vinyl records AND Edison cylinders, for both of which he had a variety of gramophones.
On the other end of the spectrum, sitting down the side of our house were four huge light fixtures that had apparently “fallen off” the Harbour Bridge. They looked like half-size scale models of Dahleks, but rustier, and with scattered panels of broken glass. It’s examples like this that best illustrate what a garbage sponge he was.
Riddle me this: When is a door not a door? When it is…a door shaped piece of wood, standing loose in a garage, leaned against the wall along with about a hundred others, occupying the space that might have otherwise housed, say, a car.
Riddle me this: when is an elevator cage not an elevator cage? When it is no longer in the former Grace Bros building in the CBD, and is instead sitting in your backyard with vines growing around it, rusting away. ("It will make a splendid aviary one day!" Never happened, dad.)
I just assumed this was all perfectly normal until I was fifteen, when I learned that most of my friends didn't have a part of their house that they referred to as ‘The Kite Room’. Despite seeing how others lived and longing for their normality, the risk of domestic tetanus infection was preferable to the vitriol we’d endure if we suggested maybe throwing one or two things away.
Whether it’s genetic or a learned habit, nature or nurture, I too am a hoarder. I just don’t do antiques, it’s much more petty and self-involved. I have a cigar box holding the ticket stub from literally every film I have seen in a cinema. I have two plastic crates full to the brim with festival brochures, press clippings, plane tickets and backstage passes documenting my career in comedy. And I also have a pen souvenired from pretty much every hotel I’ve stayed in, from the Hilton in Stockholm right down to the Best Western in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You might call that OCD; you’d probably be right.
So, dad died in 2008. It was just a whole thing. But it didn't come without its blessings; his death meant that the divorce that had cost my mother two years of her life and far more money was finally over, because in the state of NSW, being dead legally prohibits you from prolonging a divorce by being a petulant arsehole. It also meant that his grand estate of rusty junk, his Literal Embarrassment of Riches, could finally be rid of.
And furthermore, it meant that we could finally sell the house, another complication. Many Sydneysiders know it as one of the Witches’ houses in Annandale, The Abbey on Johnston St. I knew it as home for twenty-one years. For those of you that know it, just to deal with the question you’re all dying to ask, the first question anybody would ask when they heard I lived there: “Is it haunted?’ If you believe in ghosts, then…sure, why not. A better question would be ‘Is it cursed?’ Also yes.
I also knew it as the house I was kicked out of via a phone call, while I was in Melbourne, performing at my first ever comedy festival. I was kicked out because, in all fairness, I’d already left with mum and my brother when the divorce began, and someone else wanted my room. The rest of that is a much more complicated and boring story, just take it as read, dad’s side of the family are scum.
So all of dad’s junk, his Hoardwalk Empire, got valued, itemised, and put up for auction; everything from the boxes of rusty nails in his workshop to the Alpenhorn in his music room. His ALPENHORN. Out of these items, his five children were allowed to choose a few to keep as part of our inheritance, since there were a few things that while worthless were still irreplaceable. I remember when we first heard about it, my mind immediately went to the stack of Bakelite telephones he had, piled haphazardly on one another on a bookshelf in the basement. But for whatever reason, I forgot about the phone. Perhaps it was the stress, possibly the constant travel I was doing for work, or maybe it was years of marijuana abuse, who knows. I got a few other things and had this constant nagging feeling that I was missing something that I’d really wanted but I just couldn’t remember, and wanting so desperately to remove myself from the whole situation I didn’t make the effort to find out.
My memory was jogged by seeing the phone go up for sale at the auction. I panicked and bid, was immediately outbid, and then several times more until it sold for nearly double what I think it’s actually worth. The auction continued until every last piece had been sold, the Dahlek lights, the doors, the rusty hacksaws, the boxes of nails, the elevator cage, the Alpenhorn, were all carried out the gates by the neighbourhood’s fellow hoarders. It wouldn’t be long before the house was sold and the drama was finally over.
Later that day I went to my girlfriend’s house. My girlfriend at the time was Emily. She was an angel, who was with me through the worst period of my life (so far; optimism’s for idiots). I met Emily in 2008, at the height of my parents’ divorce, the bickering family drama, and all the other rich white boy pain I was experiencing. (I don’t live in a castle anymore, waaaah) And despite all that, a beautiful, intelligent, funny, and above all, sweet girl, had agreed to put up with me.
So I responded with the requisite gratitude of being a selfish jerk. In the few years we were together, we broke up for months at a time when I went on tour and patched things up again when I got back to Sydney, like in all the best romances.
Emily’s mum noticed how sad I was the day after the auction. As she put it, I’d been “unusually quiet”. Ignoring how backhanded that was, I realised I’d been upset that I didn’t get to keep that phone. I don’t know why, it’s not like I wanted to hold onto some piece of my dad. I think I just regretted not getting my hands on that object that I wanted and was entitled to. I’d decided it had value to me, and refused to part with it. And I wouldn’t realise how eerily familiar that was for years to come.
I think it was only a month later that I broke up with Emily for the third and final time, this time over the phone, since it had become a little routine.
Her tone of voice was less upset than it had been previously, and more exasperated; the vocal equivalent of rolling one’s eyes. Resigned, she sighed, and told me that she’d already bought me a present for my birthday, which was coming up in another month. So she’d mail it to me.
I was living with mum at her new place at the time. When the package arrived, I unwrapped the box, cut open the tape and rifled through the Styrofoam packing peanuts to find a shiny, black, authentic Bakelite telephone. It is without a doubt one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received - and I managed to callously dump the girl who bought it for me over the phone between the time she bought it and the time she meant to give it to me.
So every time I walk past this phone, it reminds me of all of this in a flash.
The wonder and tragedy of the human heart is that I don’t need to be reminded of this story, this story that took twenty-five years to play out and took ten minutes for me to explain to you; it can be triggered like a light switch.
Every time I pass the bookshelf in my living room, I am immediately reminded of: my privileged upbringing, the guilt that comes with complaining about that privilege, my distant father, how I never wanted to grow up like him, and how by being so materialistic, and such a terrible boyfriend, I’d ended up being exactly like him.
It’s as if every emotional reaction you have is so overwhelming because it’s a long awful story condensed to a singularity and shoved into your chest at speed.
And now I spend pretty much every day working as hard as I can to be a different person, but occasionally I’ll let my guard down and my dad will slip out and hurt someone’s feelings and burn a bridge to ash and I’ll spend weeks feeling guilty and regretful and trying to make amends.
Now I have learnt from this and improved a lot. But, I’m still a hoarder. I can’t let go of any of my stuff, not physical and clearly not emotional. So I still have the phone.