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©Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

 

Hi, it’s me. Is that you? I’m so glad you called. It’s good to hear your voice.

We don’t say these things anymore. The phone is in your pocket or purse; it isn’t on a polished side table. So nobody answers a ring and then passes the telephone to someone else saying, “It’s for you.” You would take it with a word of thanks and a tinge of excitement or even concern, gaze off in another direction and say, “Hello?”

There are so many things we don’t say, don’t hear, and don’t write songs about anymore. I’m in the phone booth it’s the one across the hall. If you don’t answer I’ll just ring it off the wall. Picture this: Deborah Harry in that phone booth. Much more evocative than imagining the famously streaked goddess of new wave wandering around hitting re-dial on a cell phone. There was something special about a telephone booth. Where are you calling from? A booth in the Midwest. It could be elegant or tacky, even all messed up, but in a telephone booth you had a sense of place.

In the summer of 1979 there was a road trip fueled by a youthful sense of adventure and plenty of pot. Out on Highway 80, somewhere between Lovelock and Winnemucca, there was a rest stop, a place to pull off the road and pour lukewarm water over the back of your neck. Cold War architecture had fashioned a metallic clamshell rising up over a few benches and tidy, graveled areas crawling with shiny black ants. And there was the phone booth, inexplicably placed apart from the other structures. This tiny sentry of Plexiglas and brushed aluminum stood there waiting, just in case. Who knows what urgent truths were spoken there? But you can picture it, all these years later. Maybe it endures. I remember the once gleaming, wood-paneled telephone enclosures like a row of confessionals in the train station. You stepped in and pulled the folding door shut, getting away to concentrate on just what you needed to say, just what you needed to hear. Now I get phone calls from the grocery checkout, the bathroom, and even from a crowded freeway. I don’t want to be on the phone with someone and have some terrible accident happen. I’ll call you back. I promise.

“Hey Mabel.” “What is it, Gertrude?” “Jack Benny’s line is flashing.” “Yeah, I wonder what the Lady’s Home Companion wants now.” “I’ll plug in and find out.” The old jokes don’t fly anymore. “If a man answers, hang up.” All those scenes in black and white of row upon row of switchboard operators are gone. So many shots of the telephone lines struck down by aliens are meaningless. “Operator, will you please connect me?” Person to person. It’s not the same.

Aside from phone nostalgia, I do not harbor a complete disdain for technology. I check my email all the time. I love it. I use Skype to enjoy three-way conversations with a pal in France and another in Japan. I have a website for my band and spend inordinate amounts of time fooling around with my Pinterest page. I send donations regularly to Mozilla and Wikipedia and love finding TED Talks, old episodes of the Addams Family, knitting instruction videos, and documentaries about rock bands. I search for images, send photos across continents, record and mix music, and check every morning to find out about the weather and projected arrival times of my bus. But I keep my landline. I’ve been told more than once that I need to stay current. It’s not the current I’m avoiding; it’s the undertow. I like to sit down, dial out or answer a ring (not the first one, never the first one). An object that used to be commonplace has become classic.

And it’s not just the charm or the elegance of telephones I miss. It’s also that they are substantial and friendly to me. The phone used to have a soft and mellow ring. I always loved the hr-dr-dr-dr-dr sound of the dial returning to its original position after being taken to each successive number by your finger. (Della Street used a pencil to dial, thus protecting her manicure.) There is also a heft to a “real” telephone. Nothing else feels so secure in my hand as the old, black dog-and-bone. I’ve seen Paul Drake take Perry Mason’s phone apart and reveal a “bug” inside the receiver. You can’t do that anymore. It’s not that people can’t bug your phone. It’s just that now it would be pointless to try preventing it. But shut the door to the phone booth or answer a call inside your house and you have something that can’t be acquired through a smart phone application. You have privacy.

Then there’s texting, the logical extension of the cellular phone. Now we’re so busy, moving so quickly, that we can’t even talk to each other. Instead of telling someone how you feel, you can type in a colon and half of a parenthesis. Like this 🙂 if you’re happy, like this 😦 if you’re sad. Why is this so annoying to me? Is it because it reminds me of high school? Candy Hansel sat down in her pink “Dittoes,” tossed her blond, Farah Fawcett bangs back out of her eyes and scrawled in my yearbook with a purple Lindy, “U R 2 sweet 2 B 4 got 10!!!” It was kind of cute coming from Candy Hansel. Now though, when someone tells me they will text me, or that I should text them, what bugs me is their use of the word “just.” Don’t call, JUST text. In this way our communication can be relegated to a lower status for the sake of convenience. So many times during a conversation someone will suddenly whip out their phone and start texting. I stop. They look up. “Go ahead,” they say, “I’m listening.” I’m not sure they are. Also, I would swear that the ability to send an instant message has become a need. People used to phone me, arrange to meet, and then arrive a few minutes before or after the time we agreed on. If someone was late, I figured there was a reason and occupied myself until they came. Now there are nervous messages back and forth to check and double check. (Who can answer a text while trying to get into a parking place?)

Change. Yes, I know, it is inevitable. But so many treasures are lost. Fat Fong’s, the Chattanooga, Hamburger Mary’s, the I-Beam, KUSF, the Tonga Room, All You Knead, all are gone, along with half or more of the artists, musicians, small businesses, and diverse people that made this city so wonderful back when they could still afford the rent. But the Giants are still awesome, Gaspare’s still has plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, and Louis’ is still the best place to have breakfast after a chilly walk along Land’s End. Varied thrushes still show up in the winter and blue herons nest in the trees high above Stow Lake. A few fixed points in an otherwise chaotic universe.

Not long ago we had a storm. The rain poured and poured in sheets outside my classroom windows. When I got home the phone was dead. I picked it up to make a call. Nothing. I jiggled it. I banged it. Nothing. I pushed all its little buttons and rattled the hang-up thing a bunch of times. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I went online to AT&T where I faced a labyrinthine sequence of pages quizzing me about the nature of the problem (please list all that apply) and my exact location. When it then prompted me to create an account (which I already have – don’t I pay a bill each month?) I gave it up. Enough for one day. Enough. There was no capable-sounding voice awaiting my distress call from the gas station telephone booth with her sensible questions and soothing answers. There would be no burly repair guy showing up with years of experience and a bulging tool belt who would listen, unscrew things, screw them in again and then bang my phone down on the dresser with the reassurance, “She seems fine now, lady.” David said not to worry. Check it in the morning, he said. It’ll probably be fine, he said.

In the best, old-dark-house movies there is always a big storm. Stock shot of sparks on the telephone wires in sleety darkness. The lights flicker and the phone goes dead. The hero and the pretty woman are trapped in the scary house. Somehow it’s always back on again in the “cold light of day.” This little retreat of our signal is a hiccough I can handle. The vagaries of wiring stressed by moisture and wind are all part of a palpable physics. In this I am a contented simpleton. That night (after watching an old-dark-house movie) I slept like an angel in a cloud of cotton fluff. The next morning there it was, good old dial tone. It’s like Louis’ Diner or the Broadway tunnel, or the band shell in the park. A fixed point. I would like to be like that. Call me anytime. Know that I will pick up the phone, kick off my shoes, sit on the bed, and listen. You will have my undivided attention. If I really miss you I’ll probably wrap the wire around one finger, wishing I could crawl through it to you. I’ll be in my room, in my house, not doing anything else. “It’s for you.”

©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2015

Elizabeth Levett Fortier teaches kindergarten in San Francisco’s Richmond District. A BAWP TC, Elizabeth also teaches at the Young Writers’ Camp during the summer. She is the author of Beauty Secrets of the Stars, a memoir of love and friendship, and is a visual artist, too. Elizabeth is also a songwriter, sings, and plays percussion in an acoustic three-piece group with her husband, David. Their music is available at www.dreamchairmusic.com. She can be contacted at dreamchair@yahoo.com

4 Responses to “Hello, It’s Me by Elizabeth Levett Fortier”

  1. Margie Stratford Says:

    I am one of those people in your life who gets a phone call from you and it is a real treasure in these changing times! I love this piece. Your sister, Margie

  2. tkozman Says:

    I so enjoyed our last call! It just happens I read this on my new ‘smartphone,’ a gift from R. It replaces my flip-phone (which I loved for years, maybe because it reminded me of a Star Trek tricorder) Now I sort of see what all the fuss is about, but I do miss my ‘dumb’ cel phone and even the ‘Dial-M-for-Murder’ black phone I got in a resale shop; if you lifted the receiver too quickly, without thinking, you could really smack yourself in the temple!

  3. Kevin Rusk Says:

    Elizabeth, this is Kevin from the Dags.

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