Don't call us, we'll call you

Kevin Cowherd

September 18, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

Poking vicious fun at people is not a bad way to make a living, but it's still work and demands a certain level of concentration.

If you're banging out a piece ripping some 80-year-old grandmother, you can't be answering the phone every five minutes.

This ruins the flow of the piece and, with your mind on other matters, you may neglect to get in an additional jab or two at the poor woman.

Perhaps you'll forget to say something nasty about her dress or her hair, or the way she clogs the aisle of the supermarket with her shopping cart.

Even if you're just sitting around the house relaxing and tearing ,, the wings off a butterfly, the phone can be a dreadful nuisance.

Nine out of 10 times the call will be from someone asking for money, or some do-gooder asking you to give blood or march for homeless children, even though there's a football game on TV.

So when the telephone answering machine first came on the market some years ago, I nearly turned cartwheels with joy.

In fact, the night before I bought my answering machine, I was so excited I couldn't sleep.

At 6 the following morning, wired by several cups of strong coffee, I was banging wild-eyed on the doors of this one electrical appliance store and screaming for them to let me in.

Unfortunately, there was no one in the store at the time. An hour later, a man appeared in the window and screamed back that the place didn't open until 9. Then he threatened to call the cops if I didn't stop banging, which struck me as a hell of a thing to do to potentially your best customer.

When the doors finally opened, though, I bought my machine and immediately went home to hook it up.

To me, it was an invention on a par with the Salk polio vaccine in terms of benefiting mankind. In fact, Salk comes off as a bit of a slacker compared to the person who invented the answering machine and enriched our lives so much.

Then, a few years later, came voice mail.

When the newspaper installed voice mail, it was all I could do not to break out the champagne and party hats, for here was yet another way to distance myself from the legions of nuts out there.

I hear a lot of people around my office say: "Oh, I hate voice mail! It's so cold and impersonal, and I'd rather talk to the callers myself."

Please. Give me a break. First of all, what's wrong with cold and impersonal? Secondly, I doubt we would be hearing any of this sanctimonious nonsense if most of the people calling you were psychos, God-squaders, con men, thieves, PR flacks and storm window salesmen -- as happens to be true of the people who call me.

Then the other day I came across an article in the newspaper that was so disturbing that, as I read it, the room actually began to spin.

The story said that fairly soon there will be a telephone on the market that comes equipped with a video screen, so that you can see the face of the person you're talking to, and vice versa.

We have heard about this sort of phone for years, of course, but now it is about to become reality, another sign that the country is indeed headed to hell in a handbasket.

Frankly, the last thing I want to do is actually see the person who has called me.

I'm sure that nine out of 10 times, the video screen would show the caller standing outside some dank prison cell or sitting in a locked hospital ward, with a burly orderly standing by in case the caller started trying to pluck out his eyeballs.

The other thing -- we might as well get this out in the open, too -- is that I . . . well, I tend to make faces at many of the people who call me.

Sometimes I will even stick out my tongue at the caller. If the caller is particularly annoying, I will actually put the phone down, stick my thumbs in my ears and wiggle my fingers while also sticking put my tongue.

No question, the whole business is terribly childish, but it works for me. Still, you don't want the caller seeing you doing this, as he or she will assume you have finally flipped out. They might even summon the authorities.

So no video screens for me, thanks. I'm happy with the technology already at my disposal, and the wonderful sense of isolation it affords me.

The other day, for instance, there was a message on my answering machine from my brother. Something about needing money for food or . . . or maybe it was medicine. I don't know, the message was pretty garbled.

I'm sure he'll call back if it's important.

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