Reach Out and Bug Someone

By Ralph Shoenstein

I recently got a phone call from a computer. It said a generic hello and then began to ask me questions about the toothpaste I use. Because I do not normally discuss my toiletries even with callers who happen to be alive, this electronic intimacy was dismaying.

After hanging up, I said to my wife, "Honey, do you remember when the ringing of a phone didn't make us cringe? When even wrong numbers were fun?"

In those lovely, low-tech days, the telephone was user-friendly. It was there to tell me that Sam had an extra ticket to a ballgame or that Jill had just had a baby. And when I called Jill's home I got her husband, not, "Hi, this is Jill. I'm in labor right now, but at the sound of the beep…"

Today computers dial me at random to sell things or to poll what is left of my mind. Or they find other ways to reach out and bug someone - such as when I make a call.

The day after that computer wondered how I brush my teeth, I phone a medical-insurance company about a claim.

"Thank you for calling," said a recorded voice. "If you have a touch-tone phone, press one now."

After pressing one, I heard, "If you are calling about a claim, press one. If you are…"

Again I pressed one, and now the voice said, "If you live east of Topeka, press one. If you live west of Topeka, press two. If you live in Yokohama…"

At least, I think that was what the voice said. I have a short attention span when receiving directions from something not of my species.

With nimble fingers, I spent a maddening minute in a desperate attempt to reach life, not a databank, database or submarine base. Twice I found myself returning to press one again. At last I heard, "Spell the first few letters of the last name of the party you want."

And I spelled HELP.

"Your party is not available," said the voice. "If this is the correct name, press one. To hear the next name in the directory, press two."

Just as maddening are computers that put you on hold with music to fume by. One night I called our train service and found myself listening to "As Time Goes By," the first appropriate piece I've heard in years of attending concerts on hold.

Just as aggravating is "call waiting," or conversation interruptus. Whenever I talk to people today, I have the feeling they're waiting for a better call.

"One minute - my other line," someone will tell me.

"Don't LEAVE me," I beg, yearning for the time when I was never alone on the phone.

I don't mean to live in the past, but do you remember when call waiting meant waiting for a call? Do you remember the sweet anticipation of a call that might light up your life? Today the phone has become an instrument of intimidation. There are times when it even turns us into unwilling broadcasters.

"Ralph, your on my speaker-phone," a friend will say, and I suddenly feel as though I should be doing traffic and weather.

"This is personal," I plead. "I'd prefer that this call didn't get ratings."

"We're all connected," the telephone company likes to sing; but I don't want to be connected to a computer in Kansas or the Beach Boys in L.A. I want to be able to have a quiet dinner with my wife, listening only to her and not to the voice of Citibank offering a Visa card.

To escape these oppressive connections, my wife and I went to a movie, where I abandoned myself to a tale of 18th century France. Suddenly I heard a BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.

"Marie Antoinette has a beeper?" I asked my wife.

"It's in the audience," she replied, looking around. "Either a doctor or a teen-ager."

I told this story to my daughter, who said, "Oh, sure, I know kids with beepers."

"Why does a teen-ager need a beeper?" I asked.

"To be reached at the mall, of course."

This I had to see for myself. On the drive to the mall, another car suddenly swerved into my lane. As I hit the brakes, I saw that the driver had a telephone in his hand.

Of course, I reasoned, if someone puts telephoning ahead of driving, he does have an advantage: he won't have to leave his car to call for a tow. And when he reaches the towing service, I hope he hears, "If you're in a ditch, press one. If you're in a canal, press two…"