Monday, February 29, 2016

Dial-ogue

I am not a huge fan of mega-corporations like Apple-- the very name seemed so pirated from my beloved Beatles record labels… but I'm betting on them in this latest little dispute.  Besides,  if McCartney wasn't able to plead his case successfully against Steve Jobs, I'm guessing the FBI will have even less chance.  And with all the tax money being used in the name of national security, if it all comes down to an iPhone, well… fill in the blank.

All this talk about phones and privacy has provoked an internal memory-blog.  For those of us in my generation and older, the cosmetic and utilitarian evolution of a telephone evokes iconic moments of emotion and nostalgia.  The quintessential rotary phone-- so Marilyn Monroe, so noir and cinematic… the ring, the cut-to-a phone shot in a black and white darkened room-- ominous, dangerous--- Hitchcock-ian-- the modern version of an Edgar Allen Poe Telltale Heart… etc… all so much a part of my adolescent landscape.  It seemed everything of emotional significance came through the phone… boys calling to ask us out, to just share an extra-curricular moment, to confess something--- our sisters would sit by us, trying to ascertain the other end of the conversation, making us nervous and self-conscious.  Schools and authority called our parents when we were in trouble… the deadly ring.

Growing up in an old Georgian house, there were unexplored treasures and souvenirs in the attic from families who'd lived there before; going through boxes and crates was a favorite rainy day activity.  We found an old black early-model  table telephone, among the things… and used it to invent a bizarre game of Rent-a-Car which involved dressing up as random characters who all intended to lease some specific kind of vehicle, while one of us manned the phone at the desk and dialed up some fantasy dealership to describe and order these.  The act of dialing was incredibly satisfying--- the smooth 'works' of the mechanism… it made this incredibly rich sound.

There were also occasional prank call weekends-- games or hanging-up on some boy we liked… or calling their mother and pretending to be someone else… just to connect with their house… it felt intimate and great.  My high-school boyfriend would call me at night-- I'd sit on the floor in a corner, in the dark, talking… touching the phone.  Ours was heavy and black… I felt as though he was inside the receiver..  it felt private and secret and safe.  My confidante.  The first summer I lived in Cambridge, on my own, we'd fall asleep on our phones… 500 miles apart…

When I was in labor with my son, I befriended the woman in the next bed who exchanged all kinds of incredible secrets with me and helped distract me from my pain.  She owned a phone sex business and tried to convince me this was a perfect way to make decent money while still being a stay-at-home Mom with  a baby.  All you needed was a nice voice, imagination, a little acting ability--- and you could make a decent day's salary in just 2 hours.  But somehow I had this relationship with my phone-- I couldn't abuse it; it was like a symbol of some kind of intimacy.  There were times we were close to starving and I'd take out her business card and think it over; but I never called.

When push button phones became standard, we all invented songs and silly melodies until that novelty finally wore off.  Dialing time was quick so it was harder to change your mind halfway into a call… somehow this made telephoning 'cheaper'… less significant…  and soon afterward, we all got message machines-- so we could connect with people even when they weren't home.  You didn't have to stay in staring at the telephone when you had a fight with your boyfriend or husband.  Phone traffic seemed to increase… Then caller ID took so much of the mystery away.  And we could screen calls.

Once my son had a cellphone, he could lie about where he was.  I had no clue he was cutting school.  Or he'd tell me he was working on a paper when he was at a concert-- maybe playing basketball at night in Central Park, getting high with kids in a rented hotel room.  Clueless we were.  One semester I paid tuition and he was in Cancun-- calling me, telling me about his classes, etc.  Of course roaming charges eventually busted him… but I hear people all the time on the street telling their mothers or husbands they are somewhere when they aren't… they are on the bus when they are having a drink with a stranger…. etc.

So it's not really a new concept that the phone is sort of an accessory to a crime or a falsehood.  They say something like half of all Facebook accounts are fake people.   All of this technology encourages us to mess with our identity-- it's like the converse of the sex-line.  You are eminently visible-- but why not use someone else's photo?  Or a photo you can not only take but alter and imbed-- all with the same piece of equipment.  You can even change your voice--- add a soundtrack.  And for what?

In this age of watching films, checking heart rates and paying bills with phones--- cameras, video, youtube--- I still don't have a cell phone.  Yes, it drives my friends and family crazy… but it bothers me that people text and don't often speak.  It seems so impersonal and de-privatized.  And then people answer calls in random public places-- at the gym, on a bus, in an elevator-- you hear this loud conversation-- both sides, often-- totally inappropriate information we are forced to witness, and knowing the caller never intended to have this drama acted out with an audience.  Hang up… and everyone is doing 3 things at once… your husband could be lying in bed with his lover while you text him a grocery list and he heart-emojis you back.  I go home and listen to voicemail… people still call me, or they email… slightly better than texting.  Men I know who cheat on their wives always email women-- wives occasionally look through their phone, and this way it's not so incriminating.  The casual habits of texters and phone-addicts makes this kind of secrecy less viable, less safe.  Everywhere I go-- -even while I am playing a gig, more than half the audience is doing something with a phone… doing several things… watching the gig through their phone camera… I don't get it.

Last week  I saw an old rotary phone in a thrift shop-- a black one, with a wall plug-- the way they originally were.  It was heavy… it was a little sculptural… it was incredibly attractive.  I had to touch it… maybe like those 1960's indie films-- or the old Warhol films… or the French nouvelle vague-- they have this nostalgia, this appeal-- like old Beatles photos-- George and Pattie Boyd… James Dean, Marilyn.  These people exchanged secrets,  intimacies on these old phones.  The one in the thrift shop had a kind of sex appeal-- it had a soul.  It had a vibe.  A young couple was taking selfies with their iPhones, posing-- pretending to speak on this old thing.  Irony.  Like an old stray dog, I had the urge to take it home with me… and suddenly I had this clear picture of my young Mom so many years ago… with her cigarette and her perfectly manicured hands… giving me this little mischievous wink and tilt of her head, saying.. 'let's just let it ring…. '

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