You can cut short any conversation with Gotta Go

MIKE LITTWIN

November 23, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Our technical advance for today is an item called "Gotta Go," which is cutting-edge, telephonic gadgetry (who says the '80s are dead?) guaranteed to make life worth living. But first, a brief history of the modern telephone.

Once upon a time, phones were simple. They were annoying, but they were simple.

This was a time of innocence. We had just one telephone company, the telephone company -- lovable Ma Bell who sponsored wholesome TV shows and felt no urge to produce those terrifying, punish-the-competition commercials. You've seen them. They always end this way: "Well, Bob, thanks a lot for giving my name to MCI. I just returned the favor. I shot your dog."

Phones were not fancy. In fact, if you had a Princess phone, you were considered avant garde. I think Andy Warhol had one. Phones were pretty much basic black (you paid extra for white) and almost never came in the shape of Homer Simpson.

There were no car phones, meaning you could conceivably be incommunicado for as long as 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Of course, car phones are now as out of date as vinyl records, particularly if they're not attached to a car fax/copier machine. If you're a true '90s person, you're already the proud owner of one of those portable cellular jobs which fold into the size of a matchbox and you can take with you anywhere, say the movies or the shower.

In those simpler days, before cellular phones, before 900 numbers, before phone sex, before beepers, before answering machines, before even talk radio, in an era when Rush Limbaugh would have been forced to sell vacuum cleaners door to door, the phone was still a nuisance. The thing about phones is that they are unavoidably intrusive. You can't call, ask if this is a good time and expect a straight answer.

As an example, it's early in the morning and somebody calls, almost always your mother, and, groping for the phone, you knock it off the bedside table. You finally grab the receiver and say something eloquent like "Umshxlb." The person invariably asks, "Did I wake you?"

And you say, after gathering your senses, "Heck no, I've been up. Had breakfast, walked the dog, just finished writing a novel. Asleep? You kiddin' me?"

Why don't we tell the truth? Is there something immoral about being asleep at 6 in the morning? What were you supposed to be doing? "Mom, can I get back to you? I'm expecting a call from the Clinton transition team. They're looking for someone who gets up really early."

We lie because we don't want to hurt the caller's feelings. But the telephone is all about hurting people's feelings. Take call waiting, the most popular of the 300 or so options now available to make your telephone user-friendly. Actually, you would never describe call waiting as friendly. It's an intrinsically hostile device.

You know how it works. You're talking to a friend, you hear the infamous click, the call is from another friend, and you basically have to say to one, "Look, I've finally got somebody interesting on the line. See ya." What you actually say is it's the boss and, sorry, but you've got to take the call.

I know someone -- you do, too -- who regards each telephone call as a filibuster opportunity. The calls go on for hours (last week, we were engaged in a tense discussion of crop rotation), because if you ever say, "Gee, I've got to get going," he gets that hurt, puppy-dog sound in his voice like he just might do himself some damage.

At this point, you're praying for the click. You don't care who calls. It could be one of those computer-selling-funeral-plots calls, and you want to take it.

Now you don't have to. Now, there's Gotta Go. It's a handy, easy-to-install button selling for $14.95 that simulates the call-waiting click (I'm not making this up). You tire of a conversation, you press the button, you ask the first caller to hang on, you pretend to click off, you come back and say, "It's my wife. She's on the car phone and she's being car-jacked. Can you please call later?"

The man who invented Gotta Go owns a consumer-electronic business. He says he was in a relationship with a woman who wouldn't get off the phone -- until the click when she would say, "I know you're busy," and then she'd hang up. An idea clicked. The would-be inventor had an engineer friend who told him how he could build a device to sound like the click, and the rest is sneaky, low-down history.

The moral: If you have to have a phone, Gotta Go is the way to go.

Gotta go.

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