No Wrong Numbers

October 20, 1991|By PETER CARLIN

Some people hate their telephones. They guard their numbers like state secrets, and then hear every ring like the screams of a small child they don't like very much. When they answer, it's with an incredulous "Yes?" One word that says, "How did you get my number?" and "Never ever call here again."

Then everything they say is geared to expedite the end of the conversation. It's like their handset keeps getting hotter and hotter, and unless the person on the other end shuts up this instant, their ear is going to burst into flames.

Not me. When I see a telephone, I see a lifeline to the outside world. To these ears, a ringing telephone means that once again, everything in life is possible.

Consider the moment you pick up the receiver and say hello. Such a casual act, but so extraordinary a feat: Your voice beaming out into the universe without the slightest idea where it's bound or whose ear is going to catch it. Sure, you usually end up talking to an insurance salesman from across town, but not always. One day it could be the twin brother you never knew you had. Or that former girlfriend -- the one who dumped you in college -- calling to say, "I made a mistake. . . . you're the one I always loved." And just because it hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean it will never be the president of the United States or even Bruce Springsteen. Those guys call people every day, and every time they pick up the receiver, only 10 numbers separate them from you.

Here's one of the most underrated facts of life: Every telephone in the world is theoretically attached to yours. The possibilities are endless, and the potential for sudden, life-changing revelation is always on the horizon.

Which reminds me that I got my very first telephone call just after dinner one night when I was 4. Mrs. Heinz, my preschool teacher, called to remind me to bring my little plastic guitar for show-and-tell the next morning. The phone rang, my Mom answered and chatted for a few minutes. Then, acting completely casual, she called into the dining room for me. "Honey, it's for you."

Suddenly, I was at the epicenter of a large moment. My very first telephone call! Mom and Dad were beaming at me, my brother was laughing, the pressure was just too much. When I pressed the receiver to my ear, I started giggling -- then I couldn't stop laughing! Mrs. Heinz was talking, and it was like one of those nightmares where you're trying to run but can't move your feet. My tongue was paralyzed. My face was turning purple, squeals of laughter were exploding out of my nose and ears and my scrunched-up little eyes. My first real phone call, and it was all I could do to breathe.

Eventually I would compose myself enough to deliver and receive messages, but it was a long time before the telephone would no longer fill me with so much wonder. I still remember the desktop model that sat on my parents' bedside table. When they were gone I would tiptoe into their room, pondering the artifacts of adulthood. Puzzling over the titles on the spines of the books on the shelves, examining the earrings and necklaces in my mother's jewelry box, counting the change scattered across the top of their oak dresser. And then, as if pulled by a magnet, I would go to the telephone.

A desktop telephone was a substantial piece of equipment then. Beneath the smooth plastic chassis the phone's metal inner works sat bolted onto a brass-plated foundation. A real bell clanged when calls came in, and when you answered, you couldn't go wandering out into the bathroom or the front yard: The thick gray wire that came out of the back was screwed into a small plastic box on the baseboard.

I would sit on the bed and run my hands across the smooth rounded contours, the clear rotating dial, the thick handset. I'd stick my fingers in the holes, twirling the dial as far as it would go, until all the holes were on the far side of the silver finger-guard. In those days the first two digits in a telephone number were still referred to as letters, a holdover from when neighborhoods had their own telephone exchanges. For some reason, my mother still preferred the old way, and where others would say "E. A. four-oh-six-three-nine," she'd stick with "East." "This is East-four, zero-six-three-nine," she'd say, with that comma between the four and the zero.

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