by Karen Topakian
One Friday night in the 1960’s, my maternal grandparents (Charlie and Sarah) invited my family for dinner to their home a few blocks away from ours in Cranston, RI. A common occurrence. Conversation at dinner usually ranged from news about the Armenian Church, the family or the costume jewelry industry.
Because both sides of my family worked in costume jewelry.
My father, Armen, his brother Ted and their mother owned an electroplating business in Providence, RI on Richmond Street, officially called General Plating, which we all referred to as, “the shop.” They employed a cast of interesting characters including the long-standing Al and Jenny.
My grandfather had owned a jewelry manufacturing and sales business with his brothers. When it closed, he started a small jewelry sales business, which he ran from a small office in his basement. He installed a rudimentary desk probably from my father’s stash of salvaged wood, plugged in a desk lamp and stored his jewelry in a floor to ceiling safe. The only missing item – a telephone.
During the 1960’s, AT&T was THE phone company. And they owned your phones. You paid your bill based on the number of phones in your home or business. My grandfather already paid for two in his modest ranch house and didn’t install a third because he thought paying for three was extravagant. Grampa Charlie didn’t like to spend money foolishly. Paying for another phone seemed foolish.
My father’s family business operated under a similar mentality. General Plating ran on sweat, grit and hard physical work. My father said their motto was, “Why buy it, when you can make it.” It should have been, “Why buy it, when you can scavenge it.”
“Charlie, guess what Al and I picked up today from a business that just moved out of Richmond Street?” asked my father grinning.
Whenever a tenant moved out of their building, my father and Al hightailed it to the newly vacated space, looking for items left behind. They were quite adept at moving and removing anything they could use – desks, chairs, file cabinets…
“What?” asked my grandfather, a man who loved hearing General Plating stories.
“We picked up a few telephones to use down the shop. We’ve got an extra one,” said my father. “Let me know if you can use it.”
The vacating business had left the phones behind because they belonged to the phone company but that didn’t deter my father.
The wheels in my grandfather’s head started turning.
”I need a phone in my office” said my grandfather, finally finding a solution to his problem. “But I don’t want to pay for it.”
“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,“ said my father.
Both men were pleased with themselves for finding a thrifty solution.
The next day, my father rigged up the illegal phone by dropping phone wire from the bedroom phone to the basement and hooking it up to the newly pilfered one on my grandfather’s desk.
A few slaps on the back and everybody was happy.
A few months later, on a Friday night in the 1960’s, Charlie and Sarah again invited my family for dinner.
Earlier that day, an AT&T employee had come to the house in response to a complaint from my grandparents about their phone service.
“How many phones do you have?” asked the repairman when he first arrived.
“Two,” said my grandfather quickly without looking at Nana.
“Two,” repeated the repairman. “Where are they?”
My Nana showed him the black phone in the kitchen and then led him to the powder blue princess phone in their bedroom.
Nana returned to the kitchen where my grandfather sat at the table reading the newspaper.
After a few minutes, the repairman walked back and asked if they had a basement. Nana said yes as she opened the door to the stairs and flicked on the light.
Now my grandfather could only stare at the newspaper too nervous to concentrate.
In what seemed an eternity, the repairman ascended the cellar stairs back to the kitchen,
“Did you know there’s another phone in the basement?” asked the repairman.
“I don’t know how it got there,” said Nana as she chopped parsley for dinner.
“We hardly ever use it,” said my grandfather with his eyes fixated on the newspaper.
“You have three phones and you’re only paying for two. I’m going to have to charge you.”
Nana didn’t like the sound of this and she knew my grandfather didn’t either. She needed a solution, quick.
“Do you know Harry Vartanian? He works for the phone company, too,” asked Nana. “His mother is my cousin.”
“No,” answered the repairman. “Lady, a lot of people work for the phone company.”
Nana glanced up at the clock as she continued chopping. “It’s almost five o’clock. Would you like something to eat?” Nana believed she could solve all problems with food. “You must be hungry after a long day. Why don’t you have a little something to eat?”
When he didn’t respond immediately, she opened the refrigerator and said, “Let’s see. I have cooked chicken, a big piece of apple pie, homemade yogurt, orange Jello, a few slices of pot roast. I could make you a nice sandwich.”
The repairman began to smile. And she smiled back.
“Charlie, move your paper. Make room for this nice man.”