Oct. 9, 2014

         Of the many indignities that modern life has brought upon us—texting while driving, speeding through parking lots, rampant interruption while speaking, an utter lack of manners—one that particularly irks me is that almost nobody answers their phone anymore.
         Once upon a time in the none-too-distant past, before cell phones, when the phone rang everybody answered it. A. equaled B. Phone rings; you answer. What’s the issue? If I had gone to the trouble of calling you, possibly even having spent a dime in a pay phone, you would answer out of respect for whomever was potentially on the other end for them having gone to the trouble of calling you. Not to mention, there was always the possibility of bad news that might need to be addressed immediately. Conversely, I suppose, one might also get good news, but since this has never happened to me, I have to consider it an idle rumor.
Then, in the 1980s when I was in my twenties, answering machines went viral. Previously they had strictly been in businesses, not in homes. But then everyone got one. With the use of an answering machine one was now able to “screen” their calls. “Oh, dear God in heaven, not my mother-in-law again. I’ll talk to her later.”
      Thus the power was removed from the person making the call and transferred to the person either answering or not answering the call. And suddenly there is a value judgment involved. “Oh, Christ,” one proclaims to the air, “it’s not that pain-in-the-ass Joe again. I’ll never take your call you shitbag, besides, you owe me five bucks.”
        If one’s call is not taken by another enough times, without a call back, a condemnation is occurring.
        Now, however, most people don’t answer their phones at all. A. no longer equals B. Now, there is probably a value judgment involved—“I don’t want to talk to her now”—push the mute button, but it’s also possible there isn’t and the person can’t find their phone, didn’t hear it, have the ringer turned off, or let the battery die. In any case, people just don’t answer their phones anymore. Period.
         They will instead, in some circumstances, take and reply to a text, even while driving a large SUV stuffed with other adults, children and pets, but they won’t answer a hands-free telephone.
       As a side-note, I believe, for the most part, if the line goes dead, whoever called the other one has to call back, that way you’re not both trying to call at the same time. But that’s just my theory.
        OK, so nobody answers their phone, and you don’t actually have to leave a message because the phone will say “Missed Call” and tell you who it is. While we’re at it here, I’ve got another thing that really bugs the piss out of me—it’s that female answering voice that many phones have that painfully slowly says this, “If you would like to leave a message wait for the beep; if you would like to leave a callback number press 5 . . .” and then there’s some interminable amount of time until the beep. If feel that I’ve used up some significant portion of my life—a week? A month? Some incalculable amount of valuable time I’ll never get back—listening to that bitch talk while waiting for that goddamn miserable beep.

        Back in the days when everyone wasn’t in touch with everyone else all the time, people had more privacy. As a kid back in the 1960s, before “Play dates,” when I went out to play my parents didn’t know where I was until I came home. And nobody cared. I could ride my bike, without a helmet, mind you, anywhere I wanted: the candy store, the junk yard, the movie theater (if I had any money from collecting the refund on Coke bottles), anywhere. The point was to simply get home on time for dinner.
         Some people, of course, get preference in the Will-I-Answer-My-Phone sweepstakes. I have observed (since I have no wife or kids) that your wife/ husband and kids get top-billing. Probably your boss or work associates, too (of which I have neither). When my buddy comes over for a few hours his wife will inevitably call at least four times, generally about the same thing every time, then will not let him off the phone once the oft-asked question has been answered. He’ll say, “Uh-huh, OK then . . . No, I told you he’ll be over tomorrow. Uh-huh, OK then, see ya—” Listen for a long moment with eyes rolled, “No, tomorrow. OK, then, see ya—” Listen for another long moment with a bored expression, “No, not Tuesday, tomorrow. OK then, see ya—” Ad infinitum.
         Since people come by and visit me every night of the week, I have a rule in my house that if you need to take or make a call, leave the living room. Nothing kills a conversation by multiple people deader than having one of the guests talk on the phone. Suddenly, everyone in the room goes silent to let them speak. To me it’s the height of boorishness and I won’t allow it in my house.
         Here’s another thing that bugs me about cell phones—when multiple people get to a restaurant, or wherever, everyone takes out their phone and sets it in front of them. What this says to me is, any call I now get is more important than this worthless gathering of losers.

          Which leads me inexorably to bad manners. When did it become perfectly all right to interrupt anyone at any time? Not all that long ago it was considered impolite to interrupt. The most difficult person I’ve ever tangled with on this front is my elder sister. Every time we have a phone conversation—and let me quickly add that I love her dearly and think that she’s extremely bright and funny—I feel like I’ve gone 12-rounds with Mike Tyson. She once cut me off in mid-sentence with, “If I don’t say what I have to say right now I’ll forget it” and it was on a completely different topic. Having a conversation with my sister is like trying to make it through an army basic training course where they’re firing live rounds over your head and using actual explosives to see if they can stop you from ever getting to your point. And though it was a just cute little, possibly 90-second story to begin with, it has now taken five minutes of jousting to not arrive at a long-forgotten conclusion. If I complain, she replies, “Oh, you talk all the time,” which is anything but the case with my hyper-loquacious sister.
         Being a storyteller, and proud of the fact that I can tell stories quickly, concisely, and always with a point, I find it both aggravating and disheartening to be cut off, often within 10-15 seconds of my punchline. I tried for a while to simply not let myself be interrupted by getting louder and repetitive, “—And, and, AND . . .” which occasionally worked, too, but wherever I was going with the amusing anecdote was then no longer amusing. So I’ve simply relented; go ahead, cut me off, why should we ever get to our points? Why should we even have a point? Why bother talking anyway? We could all be texting while driving instead. And ultimately, neither I nor anyone else has anything truly meaningful to say anyway, so what’s the difference?
        I would like to point out an enormous difference in interruptions: the perfectly OK kind, which are really called interjections, are when someone is saying, “So I was working with Bob—” and someone interjects, “—Bob’s a cool dude, go on.” And the story continues on about Bob. The not-OK kind are when you change the subject while someone is in mid-story. I say, “So I picked up my gun and I aimed it at the guy—” and you say, “The funniest thing happened to me in the store today, you’ll laugh so hard you’ll shit . . .” and finish your funny story at the utter expense of my story.
         But, as I’ve said, I’ve gone into a Zen state about all of this. Since I arrived at the conclusion that at least 97% of what I say is horseshit, I no longer care when or how I’m interrupted; let the other person speak, their story is undoubtedly equally good, and quite possibly better.
        And one last thing (for the moment) that I can’t fuckin stand is when anyone says for any reason, “I’m slammed” or “I’m completely over my head with work and kids,” which, sadly, nearly everyone says all the time these days. The old expression is: “If you want something done, ask a busy man to do it,” and not only is it true, but from my observations, busy people never mention how busy they are. It’s given and it need not be discussed. When I hear anyone say, “I’m slammed,” what that means to me is that they haven’t got enough to do; they’re either doing the bare minimum, or they’re doing what they call in the military, “Skating,” meaning avoiding work. I have a friend in Hollywood who was producing four TV shows simultaneously—which, just take my word for it, is a lot of work—and he always answered his phone himself on the first or second ring, then would give you every bit as much time as you needed, plus a joke or two. He is my idea of a truly busy man, and he never ever says, “I’m slammed,” and he does have a wife and kids.

        I feel like I’m Orson Welles (or, in fact, Booth Tarkington) lamenting at the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons, that people didn’t used to be in such a hurry all of the time back in the 1880s. Everything moved more slowly; people were far more courteous, and were even patient enough back then so that when the streetcar passed a house, “A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the ‘girl’ what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house,” the streetcar still waiting, most of the men having taken this moment to patiently smoke a cigar.

—Josh Becker