My family held on to a rotary phone longer than anyone else I know, even my grandmother. In fact, even after we did get push-button telephones, the line was still set for pulse dialing, so you’d hear the corresponding number of clicks through the receiver after pressing a number: five (pit-pit-pit-pit-pit) five (pit-pit-pit-pit-pit) five (pit-pit-pit-pit-pit), six (pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit) three (pit-pit-pit) four (pit-pit-pit-pit) zero (pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit-pit). I think that pulse dialing is the primary reason why most of my friends growing up had phone numbers comprised of lower digits. My family never had voice mail, never had caller ID, never had call waiting added to our phone plan, even after these services were made free in the early 1990s. It wasn’t a matter of money, clearly, but more that my parents regarded the telephone as a necessary inconvenience, a dinner time intruder and general time-waster that wasn’t worth the same consideration as family necessities like new Eurythmics records and sugared breakfast cereal. I’m not too bitter about it, I recall not really caring one way or the other whether my parents added these features to our phone line. My friend Rikki would call the operator and do an emergency break through when she was tired of getting the dial tone, to my parents’ chagrin, so the most important communiques were getting through; for example, which boys Rikki thought were cute and which she thought were losers.
I’m pretty sure that my friend Justin’s was the first family I knew to get an answering machine. It was a flat machine around the size of a pizza box, with tasteful wood grain along the edges and a tinted cover obscuring the two cassette tapes needed to make the thing work. I can distinctly remember the first outgoing message on his machine, recorded by Justin’s father. It was easily forty seconds long, if not longer. Doubtless many of the incoming messages were shorter than the outgoing. But in the early days of answering machines, you wanted to be precise and thorough about your expectations. “Leave your name, number, and a brief message,” intoned Justin’s father. Back in those days, you had to advise everyone to leave their message after the beep. It seems silly now, but there was actually some confusion on the matter.
Like many new communications technologies, the answering machine, and its grandson voice mail, changed the way we interact forever. Used to be if you called someone and they weren’t home, you had to remember to call back at another time. But leaving a message puts the onus on its recipient to return a call. “Tag! You’re it!” some glib caller would announce on a recording, leaving you to decide if you’d like to call them back, or if you’d rather not have an acquaintance who leaves such corny bullshit on answering machines for people to hear. Conversely, I remember friends of mine calling people when they thought the recipient wouldn’t be home, so their message would be proof positive that they had done their part to stay in contact. As if there is some Friendship Tribunal determining who is at fault in failed relationships. “I submit exhibit B, a voice mail left by the defendant eight months ago. I think the court will agree that his closing with ‘smell ya later’ implies that the friendship was well intact at that point, at least in the defendant’s mind.” A kind of relationship hierarchy was created, with those at the top of the totem pole receiving long, adoring recorded phone messages, while those at the bottom received no message, or worse, the occasional butt dial.
It seems like most everyone today that has a phone line in any capacity has voice mail as well. It’s a requisite offered freely in nearly every cell phone plan, for every land line and digital cable package that also includes the telephone. There’s no excuse to have your attempts at reaching someone else go unrecorded. So why, pray tell, won’t people LEAVE A FUCKING MESSAGE ANYMORE??! It’s ridiculous. I mean, I’m not expecting much from the automated mass-dialers that try to sell me crap or switch banks or otherwise do something that will ultimately screw me in ways I cannot predict. But friends, family–why have you stopped leaving messages? You surely haven’t stopped fucking calling! If you’d leave a motherfucking message, it might serve as a reminder to myself that I have to call you back. If that message contains useful information pertaining to the phone call, it could entice me to get back to you that much quicker. But instead, most of the people I know choose to call back over and fucking over until I get exasperated enough to stop whatever it is I’m doing and pick up the phone. And it’s always the same crap on the other end: “Why didn’t you pick up before? I must have called twenty times.” No shit, dude. I do have Caller ID, you know. THAT’S WHY I DIDN’T FUCKING PICK UP IN THE FIRST PLACE YOU MORONIC PIECE OF GARBAGE! If you’ve got something important to say, then say it and let’s take it from there. If you’re calling me a dozen times a day to ask why I don’t pick up the phone more frequently, then please grab your phone, delete my number from the address book, and jam the receiver far enough up your ass that it becomes ensconced in the pulpy folds your brain. Maybe the telephone can help stimulate your dendrites and synapses into producing rational thought.