Funeral for a friend

2010-11-13 10:18

I started to distrust telephones the instant they stopped working.

I can’t pinpoint when that was – the first time I “dropped” a call, or someone said, “I’m losing you”.

I don’t know why the telephone, the analog landline telephone, was never formally mourned. I do remember clearly what life was like when telephones worked.

What a many-splendoured experience it once was to talk on the phone.

You’d dial a number, rarely more than seven digits, typically known by heart and fingers. You’d refrain from calling after 9pm or “during dinner”.

There were a number of ideas concerning politeness about phones.

Those ideas helped people pretend that the emotional chaos telephones fostered by all that ungoverned, nonpresentational, mouth-to-ear speech – like whispering across great distances – didn’t exist.

You’d endure the long rings with a pleasant stirring of nerves, a little stage fright. As many as 10. To give the household a chance to rally.

On “Hello?” you’d identify yourself and ask after the person whose voice in your ear you, having waited, now profoundly desired.

In the absence of the grammatical spasm of “This is she,” you’d learn whether your friend was “in” or “out” or somewhere in between (weird parents sometimes said “indisposed”), while your patience was casually requested (“Hold on a sec; she’s in the den”).

You’d express thanks to the answerer. More waiting.

Offstage noise. Voilà.

Up would come the voice. Lucid, expressive, a perfect sonic spectrum: in those days a friend’s phone voice was as much the friend as was her body in physical space.

A conversation could last hours upon dazed hours, as you sat on your parents’ bed, twirling the curly cord, or hauled the house phone into the bathroom, the better to monopolise family telecommunications. Chortling, gasping, sighing, sobbing, throats catching or forming word after idle or impassioned word: you made every sound that humans make and thus joined your solitudes.

Intrusions came from others who wanted to use a household’s sole line.

Arguments could erupt, aggravated by how eager you were to conceal from your friend the noise of family discord or stern ­paternalism.

Later you might find yourself responsible for a busy signal encountered, over and over, by an important adult trying in vain to “get through”.

The remote but ever-present possibility that you were creating real-world disasters, or in any case preventing their ­resolutions, with your sweet nothings and mutual respiration deepened the pleasure of those long, desultory calls.

While they cannot be said to have abetted the swift completion of anyone’s appointed rounds, the old phones – wireful phones, defined by the strong visible insulated copper circuits that crosshatched the land – came to be indispensable to anyone who longed for a complex social and emotional and aesthetic life, a reliable vocal-auditory miracle, intimacy, friendship, romance, furious down-slammings, hissed interruptions and the awesomely strange sensation, via the mouth- and earpieces, of being inside someone else’s accent, intonations and sighs, ear canal and larynx and lungs.

Your phone voice was distinctive; your phone manner was distinctive.

You thought a great deal about people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked or left long silences or didn’t hang up immediately after saying goodbye.

There were fears, before voicemail, that call-borne opportunities might be missed forever, but there was no “We have a bad connection,” “I’m going into a tunnel,” “My battery’s dying,” “I have to take this” or “I have only one bar.”

In movies from the ’40s and ’50s, people fight telephone static and encounter feckless operators and crossed wires; that maddening I-can’t-quite-reach-you effect is something like what we have again with cellular and digital ­telephony. Sound signals, so unfaithful to the original they hardly seem to count as reproductions, come through shallow.

You can hardly recognise voices. Fragile, fleeting connections shatter in the wind. You don’t know when to talk and when to pause; voices overlap unpleasantly.

You no longer have the luxury to listen for over- and undertones; you listen only for content.

Calls have become transactional, not expressive.

The oddly popular option to use the speakerphone means that you never know when what’s left of the old telephone intimacy might be compromised.

You certainly can’t trust that it will be there any more, ever. Intimacy, of course, has flourished in other places.

There’s ingenuity and thrill to the pace and humour of texting, and email, message boards and instant messages can be as emotionally rococo as the best of the old, gone-forever phone calls, which were written only on air.

We haven’t lost intimacy. We have lost only telephones.

When some teenagers were lying on their beds listening to music, enveloped in the warm sound of vinyl records, others were listening to friends, rapt by long-playing spoken-word music mixed just for the listener.

Long phone calls were supposed to be a girly addiction, but those calls of the ’70s and ’80s were the only way to court girls, so boys learned the art of them, too.

Men now miss vinyl, and I miss those calls.

» 2010 The New York Times Magazine Distributed by The New York Times

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