I apologise to anyone to whom I owe a phone call. I've attempted to explain individually in the past that it's not personal, I'm just a phoneaphobe. I hate the fucking telephone; now, more than ever. Every advance in phone technology has been cause to hate them more. Remember when the government determined that AT&T was a monopoly and broke them up into "Baby Bells?" Now, everything has been reconsolidated into AT&T again, and to show their corporate gratitude, they have voluntarily turned over your private phone records to the government to see if your call to Lowe's about fertilizer is part of a plot to blow up Home Depot.
I enjoyed the days when the telephone was a black and heavy curio. I recall our family's first number was 38916, changed to 33-8916, and then entered the golden age of the prefix, with terms like "Fairfax," and "Broadway." Our number was Mutual57795 and morphed into 685-7795. The two phones in our house were in the den and next to my mother's bed. If you wished to speak in privacy, it required pulling the phone cord into the kitchen and closing the door, leaving you standing over the oven to converse. The number of wacky phone calls I received increased with my band's popularity, until one late-night caller harassed my mother to the point of arranging a sting with the phone company. Mom had to wait for the call, leave the phone off the hook, walk to a neighbor's, and call the phone company to begin a trace. It turned out to be a girl I knew that I would like to have spoken to in the daytime.
When I returned to Memphis after college, I was pursuing a career as a working musician the hard way; I refused to have a telephone in my apartment. When that chattering bell went off, you never knew if it was a pal calling, or the grim reaper. I had to show up personally to seek work and my friends knew they were welcome to come over without calling first. My mother and my employers, Ashlar Hall and The Looking Glass, finally convinced me to get a phone, but it was uncanny how it could ring at the perfectly inopportune moment. If I chose not to answer, it became a test of wills between me and the unknown caller to see who would give in first. Although I was ignorant of the identity of the person at the other end of the line, the more times the phone rang, the bigger the asshole the caller became in my mind. I worked out one-ring, hang-up codes with my family but it did not always work. Finally, out of frustration, my mother said, "What good is a phone if you won't answer it?" and she gave me one of the first telephone answering machines for a Christmas present.
The machine was so old, it still ran a reel of recording tape to capture incoming and outgoing messages, so I figured I'd have some fun with it. I began recording funny messages with sound effects and it evolved into the recruitment of friends to help me record outrageous twenty second skits before the beep. We made fun of the carnival execution of Gary Gilmore and did parodies of the news and scenes from movies like "Nevada Smith," but then along came "Roots." The message began by me saying, "I'm not home now, but answering the phone in my absence is my friend Toby." Then a second voice said, "Kunta Kinte," and I lashed the kitchen table with a belt until the voice said, "Toby." Granted, it was stupid and insensitive, but only my mutually twisted friends were aware of it, until one of them gave my personal number to an ebony secretary who knew me not, and she thought it was a recruitment line for the White Citizen's Council. I thought I was parodying a TV show rather than insulting a cultural touchstone, but the secretary reported it to the NAACP and radio station WDIA. Unfortunately, I was on the road, unable to turn it off, and when I returned, the recording tape reel had reached it's bitter end until the incoming calls had run the batteries down. I fielded an additional week of hate calls and messages, night and day, until finally the phone company unlisted my number.
One of the first songs I wrote in Nashville was called "Code-A-Phone," about the frustrations of leaving messages for someone to whom you need to speak, but the cell phone is, by far, the most insidious, privacy-invading mutation yet. I first became revulsed when I was placed into a large waiting hall for jury duty with the first great wave of gadget buyers and spent a week listening to sing-song rings and one-sided conversations until my head throbbed. Then I attended a private patio dinner and several of my hot-shot friends showed up with cell phones hooked to their belts where they used to hang their Buck knives when they were hippies. Not only did they allow incoming calls, but first one friend, and then another, interrupted live, face-to-face conversations to take them. I was shocked to think someone believed they were so indispensable that they needed to remain within constant telephone reach, and I actually said, "Hey fellows, it's after 5. You're off the clock."
Public courtesy pretty much disappeared everywhere after that. All incidental contact between humans was precluded by the ever-present phone glued to the ear of each pedestrian. I've stood in check-out lines where cashiers rang-up every item and presented a paper for my signature, without ever making eye contact and talking on the cell the entire time. This insulting behavior is epidemic, but nowhere is it worse, more dangerous, or infuriating than in a car. Observing someone driving blithely along, yakking on the cell, making turns with one hand on the wheel and operating their vehicle in a semi-comatose state, jacks up my barely suppressed, but festering road rage into overdrive. The Suburban Assault Vehicle and the cell phone have made driving among the most unpleasant and hair-raising activities in daily life. It would be logical and easy to stop it, but most local, state, and national governmental bodies are so far in the pockets of the telecommunications industry to make any regulation unthinkable. But I still search like Diogenes for that single, non-corrupted legislator, who will have the common decency to scream, "enough," and pass a law slapping a hefty fine on hand-held cell phone use while operating an automobile. Call it, DWB; "Driving While Bloviating."
I find email a terrific way to communicate because you have the chance to consider what you say before you say it. The Caller ID was a godsend for protection from the unknown caller and it allows you to recognize in advance which calls will take two minutes, and which twenty. But you can answer an email at your leisure and the sender doesn't expect you to drop everything and answer immediately. People get so angry if you fail to answer the phone that they hang up on the answering machine. And then they get pissed-off at me. If it's important, leave a damn message, and if it's strictly convivial, I'll be happy to talk when my anxiety levels are manageable. In the meantime, I'll be here if you need me. Just drop me a line. It's more personal these days.