"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Don’t Hang Up On Me!

I grew up in an age when a long distance phone call was reserved for emergencies.  If you answered the phone and it was from someone from a faraway place, it had to mean death or serious injury. If one of your close family members lived somewhere else, then whenever the phone rang, it might mean disaster.  Of course most of the calls were local, but you never could tell.

I used to play pranks on the phone as a kid. A lot of amateurs called Jimmy’s Smoke Shop and asked, “Do you have Prince Edward in a can?”.  They wanted Jimmy to say “Yes” so they could laugh and say, “Well, you better let him out”; but Jimmy had heard this so many times that he just yelled, “I’m going to cut your balls off, you fucking pricks”, and slammed the receiver down. 

Just getting a response from hairy-nosed Jimmy satisfied these twerps, and they kept on calling him and finally called the cops. I used to call up Richard Carlson’s house and pretend I was a Mafioso from New Jersey.  I waited until I had a bad cold and muffled the speaker with a dishtowel, but I must have had a pretty good accent because Richard’s father fell for it every time.  Billy D’Onofrio’s father was from Jersey City and had a real tough-guy way of speaking.  Plenty of ‘dese’ and ‘dose’ and ‘dats’, lots of swear words and plenty of guinea slang thrown in; so when I got a good case of catarrh and could growl and grumble, it must have sounded believable.

“Is Patsy dere?”, I began.

“Who’s this?”, asked Richard’s father.

“Don’t give me no shit.  You know who dis is”

“No, I don’t”, said Mr. Carlson.

“You do, you fat fuck”, I threatened. “Tell Patsy I’m looking for him”.

In those days, even the idea of tracing a call was unheard of, and even if Mr. Carlson had called Ma Bell, they wouldn’t have known what to do.  Besides, this was the Fifties and everyone was nice to each other except Jimmy who had good reason to be pissed, and no one certainly made intimidating calls.  All of which added credibility to my croaky voice and hoodlum accent.

When I went off to college I made expensive long distance calls to the girlfriend I left behind, but these always ended badly.  It is easy to misunderstand meaning and intent over the phone on a dodgy connection, and follow-up letters took five days to get there, so there was almost always bawling on the other end, and after each call I wandered disconsolately back to my dorm certain that Marilyn and I were through. 

Unhappy with the long distance scratchy phone relationship, I invited her down for a college weekend; but that was a bad idea because compared to the blond, blue-eyed, tall, and tanned girls from Bennington and Sweetbriar, Marilyn looked dark, hairy, and mousy – a real goomba from across the tracks which she was.  Not only that, this was the first time she had ever been together with so many preppy, well-heeled, WASPs, and she slobbered over them like a dog let out of a kennel.  I threw her out, waited for her to get home so that I could call her, call her names, and hang up on her.

Ian Bogost has written an article in The Atlantic (3.17.13) about how the satisfying act of hanging up on people has been lost in the era of the smartphone.  He longs for the days of the Bell 554, a solid, indestructible rotary phone which took all the abuse you could give it without breaking:

Western Electric model 500

This was exactly the phone I slammed on Marilyn. Hanging up was really great and cathartic.  You could spew all your bile and vitriol, vent your anger, frustration, and rage, then physically bang the phone down.  The phone was configured to that the disconnect button was activated before your correspondent could hear the awful bang, but that didn’t matter.  You could even throw the phone across the room after you hung up, and it still wouldn’t break.  Now, you would never even think of tossing a $200 I-Phone anywhere. Bogost has had the same experience:

My father took great pride in hanging up our model 554 phone violently when something went awry. An inbound wrong number dialed twice in a row, or an unwelcome solicitor. Clang! The handset's solid mass crashed down on the hook, the bell assembly whimpering from the impact. The mechanical nature of telephones made hang ups a material affair as much as a social one. A hang up is something your interlocutor could feel physically as much as emotionally, and something you couldn't downplay either. Like slamming a door or yelling at a child, hanging up a phone couldn't be subdued or hidden.

What’s the big deal, you might ask.  I should be able to hang up my I-Phone with the same effect.  Not really.  First and foremost, even if you disconnect a call, it is done with a light finger touch on the screen, nothing like the hammer blow delivered with the receiver of the old 554.  Second, whomever you are talking to when you disconnect assumes that it was just a dropped call which happens all the time.  There is no way that you can get any satisfaction by hanging up.

As importantly, says Bogost, the smartphone is more an extension of your being than a simple instrument of communication.  We bond with our I-Phones, are so tuned in and sensitive to it that we experience phantom calls, check it constantly, treat it as we would our own bodies:

By contrast, the model 500 handset acted as a proxy, a voodoo doll for your interlocutor as much as an audio route. The mobile handset is different: an extension of the self rather than an implement. To do violence to it amounts to self-harm rather than catharsis. In fact, it's barely possible even to hang up mobile calls in the ordinary sense, after their natural completion in typical circumstances. The solid handset of the Bell era may remain imprinted upon smartphone displays or buttons as skeuomorphic icons, but the device itself invites you simply to "end" the call, like one might end high tea. And even that isn't necessary. Unlike a conventional switched line, a mobile device won't remain on the grid absent a live connection. After a call, it's not uncommon simply to stow a smartphone without further interaction and wait for the other party's disconnection to terminate the call.

So, what is the angry caller to do in the smartphone era?.  One solution is to send nasty, chat-ending, sarcastic, mean, and insulting texts. In many ways they are even more satisfying because you can think them up in advance. On the phone you might have become even more frustrated by your girlfriend’s more agile and adept ripostes; but by text you can be as deadly as Zorro. 

The only problem, suggests Bogost, is that your girlfriend might just ignore the text; and you can go days without knowing.  No matter how barbed and perfect the hostile text, if it never gets there, there is no satisfaction.  I know a friend who, when he gets a nasty or recriminatory email from his girlfriend, simply writes a reply with the MAILER-DAEMON error message written in bold on top. In other words, “I never got your fucking email, you cunt”. 

I am as attached to my smartphone as anyone.  I love it, and I can’t do without it. If I get an irritating voice mail or text from my wife, I just ignore it, which is far worse for her than some lamely crafted text or MAILER-DAEMON charade.  Of course, she does the same to me, so in a sense we both hang up on each other, 21st century style.

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