Thursday, November 08, 2007

The (Bleeping) Phone

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.

20 comments:

Jane said...

My mobile phone plays "We Will Rock You"...original Queen version.....everytime it rings, it brings a smile to everyone around me. Is that acceptable? I remember when you wrote "Code-a-Phone"....we didn't have mobile phones, personal computers, or Pro Tools....(actually, a few years later, the DX-7 made a big splash with our little office in the UA tower).....Nowadays, most of the "younger generation" doesn't even have a land line....they only use mobile phones....less money, more convenient....except, of course, when your call "drops out" and you lose the conversation right in the middle of an important thought. Oh well, just another frustration of daily life.
We used to be AT&T phone customers, and hated it, so we switched to Bell South....hated that service as well.....so we switched to Cingular, which last year became Bell South and is now AT&T.....Whatever..........oh, wait a minute, that's right, we have the choice to just toss the phones, ignore them, or use them to our best advantage. A blessing and a curse. And then again, not what I would call a "raging issue".....there's a fucking war going on!!!!!!!!!!!! and by the way, Mr. Born-Again, you do owe me a phone call.

jls said...

http://67.139.134.253/2a48b361/mp3lofi/j/u/jumpinchichis2-09.mp3


I don't know if that link there will work, but it SHOULD take you to Reid McCoy's Jumpin' Chi Chis number, Take The Bus. A little ditty about the answers to driving while phoning. I'll get you a copy of the cd. I agree. I hate the phone as well, actually long for it being a big black heavy thing on a table or wall, not another lost device. (WHitehall 8-2483)
I also hate my cell phone but use it way too much.

timatstax said...

I was on my stupid cell phone trying to pay the bill while - believe it or not - talking with a live human at WHATEVER company it is now, I guess AT&T, and the call got dropped three times. She called me back the first two times and then gave up, I guess. When I wasted another 20 minutes of my life trying to get someone on the line again, I got someone in a foreign country whose heavy accent was difficult to understand and it took even longer. This was all in an attempt not to have the thing turned off. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

I, too, confess to these Luddite attitudes, which--when expressed to my 22 year old daughter get a roll of her eyes, this usually after her having asked me for the umpteenth time why I own a cellphone if I never carry it with me.

The answer that I give her is that I find it necessary for business but when I'm off duty, I'm damned if I'll carry the thing around with me so that anyone who cares to do so can disturb my peace at will.

With humor and grace she lets me know that she finds this a perplexing and unsettlingly anti-social attitude.

My point, if I have one, is that this odd, sea-change of interconnectivity that is happening--even given the endemic rudeness that seems to go with it, which Sputnik indelibly identifies--is a real and dynamic social evolution the forces of which have simply passed a generation of us by.

For my own part, I'm still mystified by the speculative question that occurred to me back during the Kunta Kindi era, which is, "What would a a Victorian Squire have said to the proposition that 50 years from now, virtually everyone in the "civilized" world (as the west was then referred to)will have a bell in their home, which any other citizen will be able to ring at anytime of the day or night."

Anonymous said...

You could not have expressed MY thoughts more beautifully. I have resorted to e-mail far more than phones, as it can be answered, if you wish to answer, at any convenient time you want. It is not an intrusion into anyone's life as a phone is.

Anonymous said...

Randy, What a great piece. You are a great writer and you are hillarious!

Pat T

Charles the Good said...

Hey, palsy walsy----You are a good writing person. Your words are good words and they seem to be lined up just right to make a kind of a sense that sounds like good sense. And if good sense is something that you would like to be said that you have, then I say that you have it. I have just stood up from my chair and I have my right hand raised up almost high enough to touch the ceiling in this little room and I am saying it again..you make sense. There you have it.

Anonymous said...

Is this Charles the Good person actually a dweeb with the initials JTK? If so, Charles the Good wouldn't recognize good writin' if it bit him on his prodigious nether member. But just this once, he got it about right.

Cuz-in-law in Big D said...

I agree with you completely, but you forgot one thing...What about these idiots driving down the highway sending TEXT MESSAGES!!!

Father Farken said...

Didn't Jimmy Buffett say, " If the phone doesn't ring --it's me!

Anonymous said...

And Randy Travis sang,"If the phone still ain't ringing, I assume it still ain't you."

davethedog said...

I don't guess you wrote this article on parchment with a quill pen. Modern technologies always takes some use to figure out how to use them. I didn't hear this complaining when they invented qualudes.

Andy Rooney called and he wants his "schtick" back.

Anonymous said...

For you old buddy, I guess you might as well disconnect the phoneand get it over with. While your at it, knowing you, its also time to turn in the keys to your new Honda Accord before road-rage gets you shot in the temple! Sign languague and walking are both stimulating and healthy.

Anonymous said...

The following quote explains a lot...'Human beings were given free will to choose between insanity on the one hand, and lunacy on the other'. Because of all that you said, I will never own a cell phone. It's the only way to assure a modicum of privacy in today's high-tech, communication mad society. You and I will be the only people who can't be found on a whim. The hippie's lost the culture war, so this is the kind of world that has evolved. Mr. Natural and his life of simplicity and resonance with the natural order have been supplanted by high-tech Frankensteins. The toilet has been flushed...all we have to look forward to is life in a high-tech sewer with the omnipresent turd called Big Brother.

Anonymous said...

True, the masses have been led down the path of un-naturalness and will pursue it till Nature aborts us. We are a gigantic miscarriage. And that will be a very natural conclusion to the whole affair. The environmental malaise (amongst other symptoms) is just Nature telling us that something is wrong. The prognosis is terminal. 'Natures way of receiving you, Natures way of retrieving you, Natures way of telling you...something's wrong'.

sweet thing said...

Randy, give me a call.

Jones-e said...

Salute! Well done sir, as I prepare to mass e-mail an offer from Plantronics for those groovy little 'blue chip" earpieces. Hate em.

Anonymous said...

None of your homies (but me) seems to share your outrage over the phone fetish issue. I guess they have all caved to the worship of the machine. Maybe they approve of being 'all watched over by machines of loving grace'. A more organic culture would cringe at the thought.

Anonymous said...

The 60's/70's generation is now running the show (government, etc.). Can someone explain to me how the 'freedom generation' is allowing America to become an uptight, oppressive, freedom negating piece of crap? Is it because everyone quit doing drugs and became their parents? Even the rock and roll sucks. We are a benighted hip-hop culture, or worse.

Anonymous said...

There is an up-side to being unhinged, but it also has its liabilities. Can anybody hear that?