hi-tek lo-blo lim-bo
Back in the bad old days of dial-up Internet, a working telephone was, obviously, essential. In 1996, I was just beginning my editing business and was desperate for work, which I was getting mostly through e-mail. I had a big clunky car phone, which I could use when my regular phone wasn’t working, but of course it was no use in getting online. Funny how every advance in communications technology creates all new ways for communication to fail.
For months, my phone line had been shorting out whenever it rained. It was torture for me not to be able to check my e-mail. I imagined undelivered frantic messages from friends wondering why I hadn’t answered, or incoming work waiting to land in my in-box like planes circling over SFO. I was at the tail end of a big project and couldn’t afford to lose touch with the publisher’s editor, so one morning I had to call Connecticut from my car phone. Did I feel like a big shot sitting out there in the carport calling my editor back East? You bet—living the California dream I was. To really fit in, I should have taken the Honda out on the freeway and drifted from lane to lane while obliviously conducting my important business.
The car phone was expensive to use when I had to deal with voice mail and stay on hold for minutes at a time, so one day I called Pac Bell’s repair line, 611, from a greasy earpiece’d outdoor pay phone while a guy practiced revving his motorcycle right behind me. The recording took me through a dozen options and finally assured me in a cheerful canned voice that the problem was in my equipment. When I finally reached a human, whom I could barely hear because of the aforementioned motorcycle, she couldn’t find any problem in her computer. She wanted to know if there was someone at my house, because there was a busy signal, and I calmly answered, No—no one’s using my phone right now because IT DOESN’T WORK. I explained that I had been having this problem for a long time and that one of the service technicians had told me that the underground cable needed to be repaired. He had given me all his numbers, including his pager number, and said I could call him anytime. Then he disappeared off the face of the earth and took his pager with him.
So the woman transferred me to Cable Maintenance, which didn’t have a recording, thank God, but the human looked in her computer and lo and behold didn’t see any problem, said I should call 611. I was about to break down in tears at this point, but I kept it together and dialed 611 again. The motorcycle had left, but now another guy was out there rattling garbage cans. I went back through the whole recording, from “If you are a speaker of English, press 1” (because God forbid we make any crazy assumptions) to “If you want to speak to a customer service representative, press 0.” (If you tried to trick the voice mail by pressing 0 first, it refused to comply until you’d gone through all the options.) So once again I receive the news from the cheerful canned voice that I should check my equipment. Finally, a human comes on the line, but of course it’s a different human and I have to tell the whole story again, about the missing service technician (who was probably snuffed out for telling customers it was Pac Bell’s problem and not theirs), and she made some calls while I waited, holding the greasy phone, like am I getting old or what, that I even think about how disgusting it is to hold other people’s ear grease up to my ear, like how often do you suppose someone from Pac Bell comes by and wipes off the receiver?
So the human comes back on the line and is all self-satisfied about how there’s “trouble out,” like what does that mean, and she says there’s a dial tone going out to me, which means there’s some problem between the central place where they keep the dial tones and my condo, and the soonest she can get someone out there is Saturday, between 8:00 and 5:00. So I thank her for that gigantic “window” during which I have to be home, sitting on the edge of my seat waiting, and I’ll be sure to set the alarm so as not to miss the guy when he shows up at 1 minute to 5.
And so my only consolation is that it’ll be like Christmas morning when I finally get my phone back and check my e-mail, though I asked around at the studio when I went to paint, and no one had tried to reach me and I was like oh. Well. Probably Terry or Peggy or Diane is out there worried sick about me, like Where’s Mary? Where’s Mary? and boy will they be relieved when I finally write back and tell them I’m OK.