The above is the title and ending line of an email that I sent today. The body is non-sensical without a lot of backstory. I sent it to my closest friend because we do this every day, email, and we only live three blocks from one another. Then we walk our dogs together and have fragmented conversations that bounce back and forth from our emails to phone calls to prior conversations, and we’re interrupted a lot by other cute dogs, or by him telling me that I have nothing of value or any real promise to look forward to in life, or by me telling him that he’s old (because he is), and then we’ll usually try to make lunch plans. Sometimes we really do have lunch. We talk about books a lot too. A lot a lot. Ones we’re reading, ones we’re writing, and ones we plan to write together. He has my next novel named already, “My Mother the Martian”, even though it’s not about martians at all and only a little bit about his mother. Two pictures of his mother hang above my desk. They’re from the nineteen-thirties. One is a sketch and the other a photograph. Sometimes I thank her for making him, and sometimes I think that I miss her too, even though we never met. Sometimes I read old letters of hers from friends and ex-lovers; they’re in a box in one of the record cabinets, so I feel like I know her a little bit…
One of the things I like most about my friend is that he answers his phone– and he has a landline.
He’s old enough to remember when punk rock happened but too apathetic to tell me about it– because even though he was there, he wasn’t. He didn’t care about it. He cared about cute waiters in Miami and sailors that he saw when he was seven years old on The Rainbow Pier. No, the irony isn’t lost on me. He cared about Dean Martin and Ruth Etting. I know this because many of his records now sit in my collection. I listen to Ruth and wish that the Suffrage movement would’ve rubbed off on her a little bit more– ok– even a little bit at all. But when you’re between world wars and America the Great is laying the foundation to destroy ecosystems everywhere, selling the havoc it’s wreaking neatly gift wrapped with gold lamé bows and accompanied by infectious jingles, I suppose the wool goes over and carrying a torch seems like a worthy cause. In short, I love Depression-era ballads of love lost and pined for, but I don’t agree with a single word of it.
But this wasn’t going to be an entry about torch singers. It was actually meant to be about telephones– and how I used to love them. Key words: Used To.
I was told on the phone today that an appointment that I was inquiring about could not be located by name but only by my case number. I said, “But I’m a human person. I’m not a case number.” —Silence. I asked, “Can I call the store directly? Is that a thing in life anymore?” I was told that he could “get me to the right department.” Then his system crashed and he had to call me back. When I received the call back, however, I was greeted by a robot letting me know that this was a call back. Michael would be with me soon. I wanted to scream, not out of anger, but out of pity– pity for the poor Michael on the other end (he sounded quite young) who never knew what it was like to drag the phone up a flight of stairs from the kitchen, wrap it around a corner and underneath his bedroom door, then stretch it to the gills to where he sat in front of his record player. He’d never know what it was like to dial 411 when he forgot his neighbor’s phone number, because neighbors used to talk once, and they didn’t have to check if it was “a good time to call” first. He’d never know that at one point in history, you could call a store and a human being would talk to you.
I used to use pay phones to call the operator when I snuck out of the house because the operator would tell me what time it was. That way I could get home before my dad got up for work. I remember being pulled over at gas station doing just that one night. It was snowing and I was the one who got voted out of the car. I was probably fourteen and running around with another girlfriend and a bunch of drop-out skateboarders from other districts. We never even did anything that boys and girls of that age weren’t supposed to be doing then. Just hanging out after curfew, sitting too close together in the backseat, laying down on the ground getting ollied over (because that shit was cool!), talking about how uncool our parents were, and then copping some feels — that was enough to get off on. I didn’t start doing arrest-worthy things for at least a couple more years. I’ve always valued the beauty (and lack of legal paperwork) associated with staying low-pro.
But yeah– I was at the pay phone (I don’t know why none of us wore watches). I was getting snowed on as I watched a cop car start to pull up behind my friends. Then I watched in horror as they drove away, my friends, away from me! Fourteen year-old me! In the snow! The cops shined a spot on me and I ran. I ran into the field behind the phone booth. Pretty deep into my Cure phase, I was outta sight in a hot minute thanks to the all-black garb I was heavily into. Pre-smoking pre-drugs-pre-everything-gymnast-stamina me just kept going. Getting caught for curfew in a small town was a definite thing then, so that’s what we were all trying to evade. Pre-cell phone me was going to be just fine too. I think this is the inherent gene missing in today’s youth. We’re all going to fucking survive, man, with or without our cell phones. Eventually we all returned to the scene of the almost-crime and continued on…after checking the time one more time.
I used to know who was calling me by the time of the call, not by the caller ID. If it was around 1am, It was my pen-pal Kevin calling from England before he left for Primary for the day. I’d turn the ringer off after everyone went to bed and drag the phone that my sister and I shared from the hallway into my room. It was clear plastic so that you could see all of the parts inside and it lit up when it rang. Everyone who lived through the eighties and nineties remembers this phone. Sometimes Kevin’s calls were interrupted by friends who were on tour, so when I got the call-waiting beep, it was exciting! It wasn’t like today, a day and age where you’re annoyed that the phone call that you already can barely be bothered to be on is being interrupted by yet another phone call you can’t be bothered to care about.
I still remember people’s phone numbers from when I was a teen. I’m often tempted to dial them. It’s a bit heartbreaking because the ones I remember the most are of people who are dead. One in particular is Noah’s (pictured in post feature photo). I remember how mad he was when I called him from a Delaware hotel room one morning after leaving a party with a man twenty years older than me. I remember learning what track marks are that very same morning. I remember being publicly humiliated outside of Arlene’s Grocery one night in Manhattan. The man I was with told me I was a fucking joke, or something of that nature, and left me stranded on the street in the rain. I remember getting on the BQE in the morning and calling him from a diner in Yonkers, begging him to just let me come over and get my stuff. He hung up on me until I ran out of quarters. I remember NYE in Philly, showing up at Woody’s house as the sun was starting to come up. All I could do was pound on the door (no cell phone) but he never answered. I remember driving to the WaWa around the corner and calling him over and over, careful to hang up before the answering machine picked up so I wouldn’t lose my quarter.
Now it’s 2019. If I got stranded, or humiliated, or lost…I’d call a LYFT to take me home. I wouldn’t even try calling my friends because, even if I remembered all of their numbers (some I do), only the ones over fifty would even Consider answering an unknown number. And that just fucking sucks.
Some of my happiest memories are framed by coiled phone cords in my brain. Some of my saddest are too. An old lover of mine was on tour (around 2004). Whenever I called him at night, it went straight to voicemail. After tour, I asked him why. He said, “No good news ever comes in the middle of the night.” It was the middle of the night in 1995 when he got a call saying that his 35 year old brother had died of organ failure. He’s turned his phone off at night ever since. It’s a subtle glimpse but it’s also a telling indication of how times have changed. We can control bad news now. We can avoid people. We can track people. We can shop for people. These things that connect us to the world disconnect us from each other more than anything else I can possibly think of. Do you know your partner’s number? Your best friend? Mother? Boss? The last person you slept with? It never used to be this way — which means that it doesn’t Have to be.
Phones used to be GOOD. They used to sit comfortably between my shoulder and ear as I laid on my bed late at night, hearing news for the first time, not just a recap of an earlier post. They used to make the world seem rose-colored and dripping in romance. Thought bubbles used to be audible breaths, anticipatory and inexplicably sexy.
“I remember when we were young
Things used to be so pretty
But now we’re getting old
Things are so bad and that’s a pity” — from this post’s title track, Sweet Sweet Heart by the Vibrators. It’s pretty much the only verse in the song– and that’s all the song needs in my opinion.