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2nd Intermission

Beverly Beckham

The telephone no longer holds magic

The phone rings and everyone ignores it. It’s probably no one, someone says. And that someone is probably right.

None of us bothers to follow the sound to its source, cordless phones always getting lost, always hidden under something. No one suggests checking the caller ID. No one cares that the phone is ringing.

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It’s 5 o’clock. It’s probably a telemarketer, we tell each other. We continue our conversation. After six rings, the phone is silent.

Back in the day, when the phone rang, everyone leaped for it. You wanted it to be for you, even if you were watching the last 10 minutes of “Wagon Train” or “Perry Mason.” Brring . . . brring . . . was the sound of the world calling. It could be a friend. An invitation. A piece of gossip. My Aunt Lorraine phoning to make my mother laugh.

Whenever my Uncle Buddy called “all the way from California!” an ordinary Sunday afternoon turned into Christmas day.

The phone was magic.

So how did a thing that brought such excitement and intimacy — a person’s voice from 3,000 miles away, his laugh, his thoughts right in your ear — fall so far out of favor? And when did this happen? Are cellphones and texting to blame? Or is the house phone simply dying a natural death?

Old rotary phones had no panache. They were dull and black and clunky with dials and a short cord, standard issue from Ma Bell, which was the only telephone company in the country for decades. And they came with no conveniences, no memory, no touch-tone pad, no call waiting or call forwarding, and no caller ID.

They were primitive things.

And yet we loved them and were never annoyed by them. We didn’t care that we didn’t know who was calling until we answered. We didn’t care that we had to walk to the spot where the phone lived and that we had to stay in that spot to talk. We didn’t care that we had to dial again and again if we got a busy signal. We didn’t even care that we shared our line with another family and that sometimes when we wanted to make a call, we couldn’t because they were using the phone.

All this was irrelevant.

Because phones were fun. Now they’re a nuisance. They ring and it’s not your uncle from California calling to say he misses you. Most times it’s an automated message: “This is important information. Do not hang up.” Or a telemarketer. Or a recorded monologue by a political candidate boasting about how wonderful he is. Or a solicitor. Or someone selling something who asks for you by your first name, as if he knows you, who is calling at nine at night.

We talk to machines more than we talk to people. “Press one for this and two for that.” “Hi, I’m an automated system that can handle complete sentences. How can I help you today?” Even when you call friends, you too often end up talking to a machine. “Sorry, I’m not home right now.” And you leave a message.

The telephone makes it possible for us to talk to practically anyone, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. But we don’t. Most of us text instead.

I wonder if this is because texting is new, so still fun? Or because we associate the phone now with annoyance instead of pleasure? I wonder if the home phone is dying because automation is killing it, because we’ve hurried too many times to answer a ringing phone only to hear, “Don’t hang up! This is an important message,” when it is not.

Beverly Beckham lives in Canton. She can be reached at Bevbeckham@aol.com.
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