“Can you text before you call?” say my adult children or anyone else under 40. “It’s jarring when the phone rings.” True, the most common call I receive is from my pal, “Potential Spam.” I see their point.
Last week, the last freestanding pay phone was removed from Manhattan — for placement in a museum. Old-school phone culture will soon be as quaintly obsolete as ear horns. Saying I want a phone conversation these days is tantamount to admitting my creeping elderly irrelevance. This is weird for me since many of my moments of peak power involved the phone: being asked out on dates, triaging patients in a doctor’s office, giving press interviews and gatekeeping for the president of a movie studio. Those blinking lights represented potential conversations, chances to move life forward or direct it down a dead end. They mattered.
As an overweight, shy, troubled youth, my verbal ability shined on the phone. It became key to my earning power from when I was a young teen.
My love — and skill — of talking to people started young. I grew up in a multilingual household, where I often had to surmise meaning from sparse clues. I would hear my mother on the phone with her mother in Sweden, my name all I could really catch in a sea of musical nordic syllables. Our family’s Taiwanese nannies taught my two younger brothers words and numbers they often shared among themselves. Again, I had to rely on hints to determine what was happening.
As an overweight, shy, troubled youth, my verbal ability shined on the phone. It became key to my earning power from when I was a young teen. The skill was listed on my résumé — above “word processing” and “French.” Being “good on the phone” meant that I could simultaneously jot down numbers, names and pleas for attention; juggle the insistent chiming of multiple lines; correctly estimate how long someone had been waiting; and intervene, listen in and make the day flow. Need I say that the appearance of my face on a screen would not have helped me? Revealing to a frightened parent calling the family pediatrician that I was an untrained 15-year-old or a pushy movie producer that I was a powerless 25-year-old, would have benefitted no one. The phone required go-betweens, not exactly Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine on the switchboard, but a thinking human brain with an office-supply message log, someone who made the whole world spin. Now, at 60, I give my age away every time I ask for the communication style I love. A phone call, please?
Those I worked for relied on me to convey which calls were most important and who was merely chatting me up. Before I learned to drive, I learned to tell between actual need and the hustle for access. I was good at it. Once, working a desk at a talent agency, I broke into my college French for a relentless foreign fan. When I had successfully denied him, the other assistants gave me a standing ovation. The phone was power.
When I later trained to be a life coach, we were indoctrinated into the strict vocal connection without the distraction of physical presence or a face on a screen. Our mentors taught us to pick up on unspoken clues in the ether, the subtle shifts of pattern and tone, what was said and what was kept back until I asked the right question, to bring truth forth and illuminate the client’s path. I excelled. So did my clients. When meeting in person, we missed the intimacy of the phone connection.
It’s not that I hate my face. It’s only mismatched with my confidence. I used to punch those buttons the way a fighter pilot shoots off missiles. People regularly assure me that I look much younger than my age. I thank them, though I don’t feel comforted by deception. But I wasn’t born with a receiver shoved between my chin and shoulder. Change is good. The pandemic opened my mind to the relative joys of Zoom, especially the regular Sunday dinners with friends when isolation was at its worst. Once we learned not to talk over one another, the jokes about each other’s meals and news of how we navigated another week in lockdown felt like a lifeline.
And then technology offered another small, intimate miracle. Picture this: a smart phone streaming a street scene far away. A shirtless man stands smoking in an open window, then the camera pans to the street, revealing a Roman autumn afternoon, dogs barking, families out walking, then swivels to reveal the view. It’s a large dome looming in the distance. St. Peter’s Basilica. Magnificence, captured in real-time. Then a beloved young face moves into the frame. It’s my younger daughter, chattering about her semester abroad — fabulous despite the lingering pandemic. The immediacy of this face-to-face moment is well worth the loss of my old ways.