I am firmly convinced that the new public phone booth is the public restroom. Think I am joking? Pay attention the next time you need to use the facilities anywhere, and you hear someone happily chatting away in the stall next to you, giving up all the details of their life. This is truly unintended voyeurism; are there no criminal charges for this?
I wrote this for the Arkansas Free Press (originally Little Rock Free Press) in 2008.
I just called to say, “I love you.”
Get a room? No, get a phone booth!
I have a friend who just loves technology a little too much. As a result of which, he seems to go a little ga ga over every little new toy that he can afford.
Fifteen years ago, he discovered voice pagers. “Go on,” he’d say, almost like a schoolyard dare, “leave me a message. Any message.”
Around this time, he was involved with a woman who loved him with a passion and an intensity that knew no bounds - according to him, anyway. One of the signs of her love was that she would call and leave romantic messages on his voice pager, no matter where he was.
One day he came to see me, extraordinarily pleased with himself. It seems that the night before he was attending a weekly card game with some friends, and she had called with the loving message:
“I don’t care where you are, or who you are with. I just want you to know that I love you.”
It was like he had died and gone to Heaven; it was all he talked about for days. He was loved, and he didn’t care who knew it.
Well, he was also getting pretty annoying, and he was oblivious to the fact. So I waited a few weeks, until the next time he was out playing cards, and I called. In a soft, romantic voice, I said:
“I don’t care where you are, or who you are with, I just want you to know that I love you.”
Oddly enough, he didn’t go around bragging about that message.
I didn’t know when I was lucky. Disclaimer - I own a cell phone, and often find it invaluable. But:
We find ourselves living a world in which so many people have the power of speech, but so few have the gift of eloquence. The proof of that might be found just on any city bus ride, or walking down a city street.
“What am I doing? Oh, just ridin’ on the bus. Yeah, I’m kinda bored today, too . . . I think I’ll take a nap when I get home . . . huh? What? Really? . . . Oh, well . . . Yeah, I’m wearing my new jeans today.”
Oh, no, it’s your stop. And just when I was getting so emotionally invested in your life, and all.
Back when most people’s phones were tethered to the ground, so to speak, and you couldn’t move all that far away from your phone - well maybe 50 feet - you could pretty much be assured that a private phone call was just that - private.
And we had that wonderful of all inventions, a phone booth. But even as Superman discovered in the 1978 film, phone booths have been a vanishing breed for a long time. But even when there wasn’t a phone booth, when the phone was (and still is in some parts of town) firmly attached to the wall, there is a certain privacy involved.
You resent it when someone is eavesdropping on your phone call made on a public phone facility, yet folks think nothing of revealing the most heart-rending - and morally grotesque - parts of their lives - to the entire world at large while they are walking down the street, on the bus, leaning against their car in the parking lot, or at work.
It’s as if they somehow believe they have a Cone of Silence about them when they begin to speak, and that no one is really listening.
Forget about FISA - worry about me.
I know all sorts of things about you. Not you in the You as an individual person, though I’m sure if I followed you around for a day and listened in on your phone calls I might. I mean you as in my fellow humanity.
I know that you’ll get the payment in this Friday.
I know that you really, really love him. I know that you are cheating on her. I know you keyed your neighbor’s car. I know that you just need one more chance, just one more chance - god, just one more chance.
I know that you aren’t sure you ever loved your mother. I know that he’d better bring your dog back. I know your classes suck. I know he just needs to stop calling you. I know he doesn’t mean to lose his temper, and he really loves you.
I know you’ll kill her if you ever see her again.
It’s like radio channel surfing on all talk radio. And while some of it can be entertaining, a lot of it can be deadly dull, and make you seriously doubt the theory of Evolution. And some is just emotionally draining.
But I think that universally, everyone is oblivious to the fact that everyone else is a part of their conversation, whether they want to be or not.
We used to say to couples who were flirting heavily, “Hey, Get a room!” But now perhaps we need a new catchphrase:
“Hey, get a phone booth!”
As long as I’m whining, my shopping experience would be a lot simpler without being surrounded on all sides by men and women having their telephone Stevie Wonder moments.
No offense to Mr. Wonder, who is, after all, one of my favorite singers, but he is responsible for one of the worst crimes against humanity ever - “I just called to say, ‘I love you,’” and one day he’ll pay.
So what is a Stevie Wonder moment?
Well, that’s when you are pushing your cart through the grocery store - usually Wal-Mart - just minding your own business, things are going well, you’ll be out of the madhouse in just a few minutes, when suddenly, all about you, your fellow shoppers start to get phone calls.
Important phone calls? Son fell off the roof? House on fire? You forgot the grocery list?
Mom just got out of prison and got run over by a damned old train?
No, just emotionally needy people on the other end of the line who can’t wait half an hour till someone gets home to validate their existence.
“What am I doing? Oh, I’m just shopping at Wally World. Yeah, I got milk. Oh, I miss you, too, sweetie. Oh, look, baked beans are on sale!”
In the meantime, traffic grinds to a halt while people reconnect spiritually and emotionally with folks they haven’t seen in at least a couple of hours. If I weren’t gnashing my teeth and considering ramming them with my cart, I’d be quite overwhelmed by the displays of genuine emotion.
Well, I’ve finally got this off my chest. So just remember, the next time you are having a cell phone conversation and someone is behind you taking notes - it’s probably me.
Of course, I can’t end without sharing another story about my old friend - one with the voice pager. After he tired of his pager, he got a silent pager, one that you could just call and leave your number on, so he could call you back.
“Whenever you need to get hold of me” he’d say, “just call, and leave your number.”
We’d be having a conversation and and he’d suddenly brandish his beeper like Harry Potter’s wand. “A call! I’d better get this!”
That act got old in a hurry. Well, for others, but not for him.
One night, while working together on a project at Community Access Television in Fayetteville, I waited for him to go outside to smoke a cigarette. I slid behind the desk in the lobby and picked up the telephone and quietly dialed in his number.
“Hello, this is ___________. Please leave your number when you hear the tone.”
Smiling an evil grin, I tapped in the number of the White House switchboard. Within a minute, my friend burst in from outside. “I’ve got a call. I’d better take this!”
He shouldered his way into the break room, and picked up the phone, dialing the 800 number to destiny. When the call was connected, his eyes widened, and he slammed the receiver down faster than Matt Dillon ever pulled a colt from his holster.
“That was you, wasn’t it?” He asked.
“I believe it was,” I said. “What’s the matter? Didn’t they want to talk to you?” It’s such tender moments that memories of made of, my friends.
Then again, those beepers and voice pagers were a lot more fun than these cell phones are - at least for practical jokers.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, “Freedom Run,” and a history of Fayetteville, “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Arkansas Free Press - July 2008
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