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