Don't call me, Blah Blah Blah

Here's a story that will keep you up nights, and it's no urban legend. Every word of it is true; only the names have been changed to protect the misunderstood.

It goes like this: One night a woman I know was enjoying a raft of cocktails at Kirby's Beer Store when the bar's sole telephone began to ring. (Kirby's boasts a rotating line-up of older payphones, each weighing as little as two hundred pounds and embedded for all time in a wood-paneled wall.) Another patron answered and summoned "Francine," as we'll call this woman, who tossed back what was left of her drink and, after hurling her empty glass against the bar for luck, made her way nonchalantly to the phone. Although Francine made a policy of never, ever answering her home phone — a one-time-only budgeting blunder had long ago resulted in an embarrassing shortfall of available cash, and unpleasant calls had soon followed — she reached for the dangling payphone receiver with haughty impunity. After all, who but Francine's friends would know to call her at Kirby's? She blew a kiss to a rank of frightened newcomers and, as she lifted the handset, extinguished her cigarette in a friend's trembling palm.

"This is Francine," she said into the phone.

Stop right now if you can't take it, because this is the Dostoevsky moment. In the breezy, catch-as-catch-can days before this fated call, Francine had been a perky little flower who captivated all who saw her; now, according to a friend of a friend who swears to have sighted her very recently, she lives in the trunk of her car. None of us wants to believe that a thing like this can happen to anyone, but for those of us who knew this long-ago Francine the terror is twice as real.

"Francine?"

It was a man's rough voice on telephone. Her voice was like the music of water moving gaily over stones in a mountain stream. She covered the mouthpiece and, to a klatch of admiring friends at the bar, sang out, "Somebody buy me a beer right this minute or I'm taking off my top again."

She returned to her caller with a dulcet, "Yeah?"

"Francine," the man continued, "this is…" We'll call him Blah Blah Blah.

"Who?"

"My name is Blah Blah Blah."

"Mister, I have no freaking clue what you're saying," chimed witty Francine.

"Listen," Blah Blah Blah said flatly. Did Francine now experience a moment's pause? As she surveyed Kirby's, her hideaway and secret sanctuary, the one place on earth where she felt safe from life's quotidian demands, did she somehow sense that this safe harbor was about to vanish like a mirage?

Blah Blah Blah cleared his throat. "I'm your student loan officer," he said.

When a Stranger Calls

Francine's story is of course an extreme example, and the likelihood of something like this ever happening again — of an unscrupulous stalker netting his practically innocent victim at Kirby's, of all places — is very low indeed. Still I imagine that many of you who are younger than me might be wondering how it could ever have happened at all.

There was a time not so long ago when we didn't each own our own cell phone. I was a child at the time of which I'm thinking, and to reach another child I had to actually call his parents and ask if I could speak to him. If these same parents weren't home — phones then were connected with wire to a permanent structure — or if they said no, you had no recourse at all. For many, many years, there was no call waiting; there was no redial button either, so if you called your friend and his line was busy, you had to manually re-enter his number over and over again, for however long it took, until his older sister Sally got done talking to her boyfriend Jim (who had been a pretty OK guy, we thought, until he started dating Sally and turned into a pussy) and hung up the freaking telephone. You could not, in those days, forward your calls to the suicide prevention hotline for when Jim called back, nor could you block all calls originating at his home.

Get this: dialing *69 back then did not reconnect you to the person who had just called to tell your parents that the pot your brother was selling was bunk and that their car tires would be flattened unless he got back his ten bucks. Nor would it connect you to the anonymous classmate who had just hung up after giving his opinion of Kathleen Mooney, the girl you were going with: she was "gross."

But lacking most, although we didn't know it yet, was caller ID. Before caller ID, anyone could call you — anyone at all — and you wouldn't even know which voice to use when you answered. When I was away at college, my roommates and I underwent nearly catastrophic stress any time the telephone rang: maybe it was the cute guy from Liz's humanities class or maybe it was the bad check woman from Dillon's. We didn't record our checks, so who knew? Answering machines were still too complex to use, so lifting the receiver of a ringing telephone was just as suspenseful for us, I imagine, as listening to the draft lottery had been for our older brothers. Many stymied callers hung up while Liz, Jane, and I stood a few feet from the telephone, staring at it uncertainly, unsure what to do. Once the phone rang and the three of us, plus two of our friends, actually ran from the room in fear.

Go Directly to Jail

In 1984 a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice broke up the monopoly that AT&T ("Ma Bell" familiarly) held on the telephone business. AT&T's Washington friends decried the decision, saying that without Ma Bell's stewardship American phone service would degenerate back to the use of cans connected by string. But in retrospect it's hard to imagine that those guys didn't maybe have some sort of motive, possibly even a financial motive, for opposing the change.

Sure, Ma Bell provided clear connections, and the identical diction, voice, and demeanor of every one of its thousands of operators supplied a sense of continuity nationwide; you were all the time saying, "Are you sure it wasn't you I spoke with just now?" But since America's telephone industry has undergone its glasnost, a lot of the finer points of Ma Bell's service seem draconian indeed.

Let's take a look at the equipment. My parents didn't actually own the boxy rotary phone (a prosaically named Model 500) that sat in the kitchen throughout my childhood; you could not, in fact, buy a telephone then. That telephone, like every other telephone in America, was rented from Ma Bell, and a charge was added to our monthly bill to cover it. In fact, the parents of a friend of mine were… I don't want to say persecuted, but certainly at least nagged about an antique phone they were using in their home; it would be best for all parties, the company insisted, if they were to exchange this antique for a new Model 500. How could they guarantee tip-top service otherwise?

In my memory the Model 500 was a weighty appliance, one that hit the kitchen floor with a real bang; a parent was almost always summoned when the Model 500 went down. They were durable, too. Just look at how often they were used as murder weapons in movies. Maybe you think you don't know what a Model 500 looks like, but you do: those were "desk" phones, the only kind of phone you could get (although the color was variable) unless it was a Model 554, which was the one that went on the wall. Eventually the Princess phone came along, giving consumers a third option provided that the consumers were teenaged girls.

When I used the word glasnost earlier, I wasn't just showing off my Russian. The fact is that there was something almost Soviet about the manner in which Ma Bell made decisions for its customer base, which comprised, by default, the population of the United States, and it was emphasized that this was done for the customer's own good. Both the Model 500 and 554 were, for instance, hard-wired into the wall so that they couldn't be unplugged. Nor could they be turned off, the result being that those who wished to sleep in their own homes sometimes found it necessary to bury their telephones under all the available bedding or at the bottom of the laundry. Care had to be taken to leave the handset in the cradle, however, as the complaint that issued from the Model 500 when left off the hook was the only sound generated by humans that was audible in space. And while I admit to having just made that fact up, there's a chance that those who remember the sound could be persuaded to believe me even knowing I had.

Where Ma Bell's philosophy differed from the Marxist/Leninist model was in its pricing. Long distance, under their arrangement, was wildly expensive, and memories of the phone bills that Liz, Jane, and I incurred in Lawrence still make me feel clammy and used today. The itemizations, at least, were fascinating, because we sent telegrams to celebrities and billed them to our phone; because Janie once moved suddenly to Paris without any money and we called all over Paris to find her; because one of us persistently misdialed the 316 area code when calling Wichita and then visited with the Canadian strangers in the 416 area code who answered; because we housed bands that played Lawrence on tour; and because we'd accept collect calls on a hunch. Liz once made a case that we should frame a bill we'd just received: the locations were exotic and the prices pornographically frank. There were pages and pages of it. Plus, she argued, what difference did it make since we could never pay it?

411 Is a Joke

Anyone who can move about freely while talking on the phone is by nature incapable of understanding the human limits of rage and boredom. It used to be that when an insufferable person got you on the telephone you were not only locked into the conversation but also tethered to a wall. (Here's a tip: when you hang up on these people, do it while you're speaking, not while they are. Generally such people can't read external signals — if they could they'd kill themselves — but in the unlikely event that a fluke split second of clarity should make one suspect you of restlessness, cutting yourself off mid-sentence makes your sudden absence seem more plausibly accidental, if you care.)

I'll say no more about being tethered, and I'll skip a recitation of the excuses that, while in high school, I stammered out extemporaneously on those occasions when I answered the phone and found a certain classmate, a Lora, on the other end ("My, um, muffins… that I'm making… dinged"). If you're my age, you might have been expected to share a phone line with your parents in high school, and I'll likewise forgo a description of the chilling effects on free speech produced by the presence of two parents, a brother Tom, and four unguarded extensions in the house from which you're trying to place a call to this one guy named Glen, who's a junior but has P.E. with you, and who would be totally into having his sister drop him off if you could give him a lift home.

Another topic I won't go into is how unlikely it seems, to anyone of my generation, that movie times can be obtained by dialing 411. While we may be capable of grasping this intellectually, on an emotional level it's preposterous. Movie times. Please.

At What Cost Progress?

Time marches on, and sweeping technological and cultural advances spring up in its wake.

But some are left behind. Somewhere on the streets of Wichita, a frightened, syphilitic Francine wraps herself in a roll of NASCAR contact paper stolen from the men's room at Gander Mountain and braces herself for another night in the dirty Civic. The city rushes past her as she pops the trunk and shuffles emotionlessly along the car to her yawning, nightly tomb.

And then a sudden change comes over Francine. She stops and lifts her shaking hands before her face. "My nails," she mutters to no one. She draws her hands nearer. "These look like crap. I'd like to have them done." She envisions opulent pink polish on her fingernails and for a moment the past melts away. In place of this haggard ghost there stands the freckled, carefree girl Francine used to be. "Fuck yes!" she cries aloud. How radiant she is! How beautiful!

But the illusion passes as suddenly as a sparrow, and she finds herself back in her NASCAR paper, on the street, alone. From deep in her past, a voice calls out to her.

"It's for you, Francine."