Wall Phones

by Robert P. Barsanti

I stood in a kitchen in Tom Nevers and watched a phone ring. My life had skipped back twenty years while an aqua wall-phone was going through its famous paces. For a half second too long for my own comfort I wondered if someone’s pocket held the bells, before I picked it up and said “Hello.” Apparently, I had won a deluxe vacation for two to Cozumel if I answered a few brief questions.

The house phone has stepped off the bus and into the past, along with the answering machine and Musicall. It was doing fine in the world of the iPhone and YouTube when the cable companies decided it would be an excellent addition to their service package to the tune of seventy dollars a month. All across America, check writers looked at the bill for their cell phone, the bill for their landline, and their checkbooks with an earnest and existential question.

Being old, I once lived in a time without digital anything, beyond clocks. And they mostly just flashed. I am neither foolish enough nor addled enough to suggest it was better to live a messy analog life. My father grilled the young women who called me on our sky blue phone before he handed it over to me. Moreover, my sister would sit in another room and listen in to my calls. I have missed calls, received wrong numbers, and spent more than a few evenings watching the machine sit in silence. It wasn’t fun. It didn’t make me stronger. It was just annoying.

My analog past includes many skills and abilities that make no sense in our emoji present. I have taken phone messages, scratched records, bootlegged songs off of the radio, used a tape-to-tape machine, waited for the Rockford Files to come on, and missed the season finale of E.R. because I was stuck on the late boat. In the past, nothing waited for me.

Instead, I had to wait and be ready for my analog life. It required planning, communication, and courage. If I missed Empire Strikes Back at the Dreamland, it wasn’t going to come back. If I missed the call from my friends before they left for Thirty Acres, I wouldn’t know they were bar-hopping. If I wanted to talk to my Heartsore Hope on the phone, I had to do it with the knowledge that conversation could be eavesdropped, analyzed, and mocked. My hope would build a wishful soap bubble that the world popped. Disappointment and confusion were a part of the plan and perfection. Nobody got what they wanted.

Today, I can get what I want. Without moving out of my chair, I can watch almost any movie ever made, read any book, listen to any song, and watch any TV shows from the last fifty years. In the dark past, I heard a song on WMVY that I liked, but didn’t catch the DJ back-announcing it. The tune wiggled into my hippocampus until the technology improved to the point where I could sing it into my phone, find the song (“So It Goes” by Nick Lowe), and dig it out of my ear with a spoon.

My phone calls will either get me immediately or will go to voice mail so I can find a time when I want to answer it (or never). My digital life flies over my head and taps me on the shoulder occasionally. Would I like to talk to Mike? Would I like to bring my Boon Companion to the beach? Would I like Sushi or Sashimi delivered? Everything happens perfectly in perfect fidelity; I don’t need to have any disappointment or confusion. I don’t even need to leave my seat. My soap bubble kept bobbing in the gentle digital winds, three feet off of the deadly grass.

My friend Chad must have felt this way. He and his soap bubble rode a motorized longboard down Old South Road, skiing left to right to the tunes in his earphones. Somewhere deep in his mind, he had curated the Instagram feed of this trip, from his bare feet to his red Beats headphones. The rest of us could only join the parade and follow with awe and wonder.

I am afraid that my digital life has become intolerant. Every song I listen to is either a well-travelled personal greatest hit replayed without hisses and pops of time or has been selected for me by some algorithm of all of my past purchases and “likes.” I only watch the TV shows I want to watch at the time I want to watch them wherever I want to: Monty Python in the Chicken Box men’s room at four in the morning. I don’t have to watch a movie I may not like, listen to “different” music, or read anyone I don’t agree with. The world passes by outside of my bubble, distant and secure by advantage, algorithms, and the affluence. I don’t have time for music I haven’t liked for decades, movies not aimed at my gray haired aesthetic, or unpleasant ideas.

Both sides of the political divide don’t want to be pricked. Fox News doesn’t want us to watch anyone else—nor does MSNBC. The shocks of the world don’t make us tolerant of the pains we all suffer, instead we run back to our Netflix queue and Spotify playlists to smooth our upset with ice cream and video.

Chad’s brother, Thad, sat next to me at the counter at Black Eyed Susan’s. He wore seersucker shorts, a white Vineyard Vines shirt, and a MAGA hat. I wore reds, a Dalai Lama golf shirt I had found at the dump, and a healthy air of annoyance. Neither of us had our earphones in. Both of us were sons, both of us were customers, and neither of us wore socks. I did not want to talk to him; I didn’t want to berate him about guns, the Muslim ban, trade, or the concentration camps we have on the southern border. Instead, I ordered eggs benedict, read the paper, and handed him the sports page when he looked at it. Later, he passed me the cream.