Telephone Answering Machine Blues

If technology is supposed to make life easier, why does a new telephone answering machine create more problems than it solves?
By William Chapin
October/November 1994
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Proficiency in college level math and wartime flight experience impart almost enough knowledge to use a modern telephone answering machine.
ILLUSTRATION: RICK KIRKMAN


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In 1984 I bought a telephone answering machine and plugged it in at my home near Sonoma, California. I didn't really want it. I didn't really trust it.  

I'm 75. My all-time favorite phone was the phone we had at Bushwillie Farm in East Pittsford, Vermont, when I was a small kid. It was a brown wooden box slung on the kitchen wall. Inside the box were some primitive electrical bits that I took for granted. You turned the crank two or three revolutions — brrrng, brrrng, brrrng — then lifted the receiver off the hook and a real-live operator said "number, please." The operator rang the number for you, unless someone was on the line. In that case you hung up, waited, and tried again.

That was a swell telephone. It's been downhill ever since.

I bought my first answering machine because I had been hired to do some PR work for a six-foot-five-inch gung ho land developer. He said he roomed with Ted Kennedy at Harvard and flew B-47s on recon flights over Communist Poland. Dan (I called him Dan) was a Big Spender. Dan suggested that I buy an answering machine because Lord knows how many calls I'd get once people heard about his ideas. My job with Dan lasted two months, the answering machine lasted a while longer.

PhoneMate was pretty easy to install and had a minimum of gadgetry — a dial here, a button there, a little screen that lit up and informed me how many invaluable calls had been recorded.

I don't care for "cute" messages. No doggerel, aimless tunes, or friendly insults. My message stayed the same for ten years. During that decade, the highest number of calls the machine displayed on the little screen was eight. During that decade, I never inserted a new tape, a fact that my daughter found ludicrous.

In 1994, the answering machine got tired and cranky. Now and then, when the screen registered a message, I'd "rewind" and play it back and my only message would say, "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again. If you'd like to make a call, please hang up..." Over and over, maniacally. I was clearly missing a message that would rearrange my entire life. Maybe I'd won a sweepstakes.

I unplugged the machine, wrapped the cord around it, and drove it down to Radio Shack, a hideous tangle of wires and computer screens and shiny plastic boxes. They did not look user friendly. I found it odd that I didn't see any radios. Perhaps I just didn't recognize 1994 radios. I plunked PhoneMate on the counter next to the cash register and in front of Ben, a salesman who resembled the late John Candy.

"It's pretty old," he said.

"Yup. I know. How much to repair it?"

"Probably isn't worth it; 60 or 70 bucks. I can give you a new one for what it'll take to fix it."

"O.K. Let's take a look." (Why do they always say "give" when what they really mean is "sell"?)

He bulged out from behind the counter and ushered me over to a model that was very much the color of Ivory soap. He went into a frantic spiel full of arcane words that I could not make head or tail of. I said: "I'll take it."

The owner's manual contained 32 pages of fascinating stuff like, "CPC (Call Party Control), lets the TAD know when a caller hangs up. Set CPC to MIN. If the TAD often hangs up during a caller's message, set CPC to MAX.'"

The initial exam revealed sixteen buttons and tiny toggles you could push. I diddled it for more than an hour in the manner of a capuchin monkey trying to write a masterpiece by hitting random typewriter keys. Tiny red lights went on and off as I diddled. I recorded a "message."

It wasn't working.

My negotiations with that salesman must have been anomalous, freakish. I asked my wife O'Hara to not answer the telephone, went to the clubhouse (we live in a retirement community), phoned home ...no message.

I fussed and fumed for a few days and complained to my daughter Pennell, as if it were somehow her fault (she lives a few miles away). Pennell said I could rent an answering service from Pacific Bell for $4.95 a month. That sounded like a good idea.

I tried the phone "service" at Pacific Bell. I got voice mail, a horrifying mutation of the communication process if there ever was one. "Thank you for calling Pacific Bell. If you wish to speak to an operator, please press pound."

I never press pound. It's a rule. I was warned by a psychiatrist that hair would grow on my palms if I pressed pound. So I never press pound.

I phoned Ben, embarrassingly, at Radio Shack. "Listen, Ben. I flew B-24 four-engine bombers in World War II and got straight A's in calculus in college, but I'm really dumb answering-machine-wise. Do you think you could come out here and fix it?"

There followed a dramatic silence.

"I'll pick you up and drive you out here," I said.

"Deal."

While we were driving to my house, Ben said he had only recently moved to Sonoma from Reno, Nevada. I asked him if he played poker. Poker is my favorite game.

"I never gamble," he said rather emphatically. What? What was he doing in Reno then? I should have told him that I never press pound.

I led him into the bedroom and he diddled the Ivory soap machine, scratched his head, diddled, stared around a bit, then phoned Radio Shack.

"Rick? This is Ben. Phone me back at..." He looked at me for the number.

Rick did phone him back. I couldn't hear what they were discussing, but I clearly recall a "CPM and MAX" and the raising of Ben's eyebrow. "It's fixed," he said quickly. I drove him to Radio Shack.

But it wasn't fixed. At least, I couldn't make it work. I should have been more demanding. I should have held Ben hostage until Ivory worked. But he was much younger and bigger than I.

I became more than glum. I became catatonic. I remained catatonic for 11 days. No messages came over the machine. One tiny little red light gleamed steadily, taunting me. I could see it at night before I went to sleep.

Some of my geezer-neighbors and I belong to the Creek Side Lunch Bunch. We're all men. We leave the wives at home. Old-fashioned, sexist get-togethers. I went to the April meeting, ate ribs, and asked the congregation if any one of them knew telephone answering machines. I explained the problem. I implored. They were amused. Fred Hearn told me to get in touch with Marcus Olivier, the proprietor of Personal Telephone.

I phoned him the next day and got his answering machine, which appeared to be flawless. He arrived the next morning, neat, clean, and with a great number of jangly keys hanging from a belt loop.

"These models aren't much good, Bill," he said.

I became despondent as he punched a few buttons, then a second tiny red light came on. This was progress.

"Get ready to record your greeting, Bill," he said.

After ten years of the same message, I couldn't think of a thing to say.


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