In the Depression decade when breadlines were the headlines we had up to three mail deliveries a day but no telephone. Instead most people depended on “runners” who hung around the drugstore hoping to make a nickel tip, They would dash up the stairs of our four story walk-up to convey messages or summon people to the community phone.
During the war there were none available so I was fourteen before we had a phone in our apartment; a party line, of course. With all these impediments I’m not so sure it wasn’t a better system than what we have today. Fewer digits to dial, friendlier operators to whom you might ask the meaning of life (on a dare) and phone booths where Clark Kent shed his merely mortal self.
Over the years we’ve witnessed one innovation after another from colored phones to match the bedspread to push-button to answering machines along with a monthly bill higher than our old rent.
Answering machines are a symbol of our age; a soliloquy addressing the elongated silence. First it’s just you and the beep. And now it’s your turn to grab the open mike without Interruption and say your piece, or burst into song, wax poetic or rant.
If you are calling a large company you are generally told how important your call is. This is what goes through my mind while on hold:
I’m glad you have a chance to get away from your desk. May I ask why you change your menu more often than my local deli? I’m sure you’re experiencing a high call volume. No, I can’t call back between mid-night and three. You’ve put me on an elevator with your music. Perhaps I was abandoned as a child and you have just opened up the wound. Is it my numb ear you are monitoring for quality assurance or my withered arm? Seasons have passed; my arm is in its foliage. I’ve finished the newspaper, the police blotter, weather reports in Asia and the obits. I’m almost mentioned. The grandchildren have grown. Life is slipping away. There’s no one left but that great operator in the sky and all humanity is on hold with faith that their call will be answered in the order received.
Instead, this could be an occasion for retreat and contemplation rather than reaction, a time to reconnect with a more elemental sense of who we are away from the buzz. Might it be that we are too connected and at some level crave the aloneness?