In the midst of hammering out a thought on my computer yesterday, the phone rang. We still have a “house phone” which a couple of years ago I had assumed we might give up once the kids were both in college. When offered the chance to combine our phone with our existing cable and internet (eliminating the phone bill) and reducing the bill by twenty dollars, we took it. I much prefer talking into a handset more weighty than my cellular and appreciate the option of having several base stations where I can potentially locate a phone when it rings. My cell phone is either in the bottom of my purse, on my night stand, plugged into the charger or in the cup holder of my car. It doesn’t hold a charge long enough for a marathon conversation with my sister-in-law and I have not mastered the art of cradling it between my ear and shoulder so that I might complete domestic chores while talking. This is not to imply that while on the house phone I am peeling pounds of potatoes and ironing our bed sheets but in theory I could be.
A phone ringing holds many possibilities, especially since I have been applying for jobs for twenty-one months. I answer the phone with a smile on my face and confidence in my voice. More often than not it is an organization soliciting donations or unwanted items from my home, a political party or candidate looking for money, somebody wanting to sell me magazines, windows or siding. While I am patiently waiting for the phone to ring with an opportunity to bring money into the house, I have a part-time job declining offers to take money out of my wallet. Yesterday the call was different, I left my computer (hoping to retain my thoughts) and went into the next room to retrieve the phone. I gave my cheeriest “Hello”, the kind that would win over a potential employer simply by hearing it. There was a slight pause and then came “Oh, I have dialed the wrong number.” I simply responded with “That’s okay, have a nice day.” because what could it hurt?
I returned to what I was writing, appreciative that she had not simply hung up on me. I also was glad that it was not one of those longer pauses, where a machine has dialed a bunch of numbers and then when some poor sucker answers they click over to you. One of those just happened while I was writing this. It was “Kevin from computer maintenance” who was calling from what sounded like the trading floor of the Stock Exchange but likely was some cramped suite packed with other people trying to extract personal information for ill-gotten-gain. I understand what it is like to need a job but there are limits to what I will do for employment. Honestly, I would rather help someone get their deceased uncle’s millions of dollars out of their homeland safely in exchange for a percentage of it and simply providing my bank account information, including all security codes. Kevin was looking to get my email account and password eventually and clearly I am too smart for that.
About half an hour after the call yesterday the phone rang again. The electronic voice of my phone that garbles the names of most incoming callers gave the familiar, yet unintelligible identifier it had for the previous call. I offered my warmest greeting, on the off-chance that she owned a business and after our last interaction she needed someone with such an assured phone presence to run her corporate office. Alas, it was not to be. Upon hearing my perfectly delivered verbal nod, she responded with “Oh, I am so sorry, I have dialed the wrong number again.” she then added apologetically “I’m old and I forget.”. After assuring her that I was in no way troubled by her error I returned to my desk. I sat down and on a piece of paper I wrote “I’m old and I forget.” because even though I am not truly “old” I wanted to remember her exact words but knew if a day passed without it being written down, those words would be lost. As brief as our exchange was there was both a sweetess and a sadness to it.
I wonder if her sense of frustration was that her fingers were keying in some numbers incorrectly. Perhaps without glasses she was misreading the number from an old-school address book or maybe a number she had known by heart for years had partially vaporized since the last time she dialed it. Her remark (“I’m old and I forget.”) was brief, factual and yet somehow I found the statement to be somehow eloquent. I hope she was able to reach whomever it was she was trying to call.
Dialing wrong numbers is something we all have done at some point. I seems to occur less frequently as more numbers are auto-dialed from our directories. I remember in elementary school, perhaps first or second grade, we were formally taught phone etiquette, which included how to respond when accidentally dialing a wrong number. We received a little book noting proper phone usage that had a directory in the back for you friends from class to enter their names and numbers. There was role-playing. I remember announcing at dinner that evening that rather than simply saying “Hello” when answering the phone, I was supposed to say “Rose’ residence, this is Nancy.” and we were never to say that we were home alone but rather “I’m sorry, she is not available to come to the phone right now. May I take a message?”. I was fairly confident that any kidnappers or robbers who were calling to see if kids were home alone were on to that scam.
While growing up I took my phone answering seriously. I remember my father calling me into the kitchen after a phone conversation he was having ended. He said “The man who I was talking to said you were very polite on the phone when you answered.” which pleased me. He continued “He wanted to know if you were looking for a summer job, he wanted you to work in his office. I told him you were in third grade.”. I had a deep voice, even as a child.
It is hard to imagine now a child waiting until elementary school to learn about phone usage, yet I wonder if any child is actually instructed in how to properly use a phone anymore. What passes for phone etiquette now might consist of limiting phone use during meals and only texting allowed in church. Kids have access to phones when they are much younger than I was. Fisher-Price makes what basically amounts to a giant iPhone teething ring, seriously. Kids Skype with grandma and grandpa while wearing diapers and drool on their parent’s cell phones in their car seats. Any day now I anticipate receiving a wrong number that is simply the sound of a cooing baby gumming on a cell. Cradle to grave cellular communication. Regardless, I will answer in a cheerful manner because after forty-three years it’s possible that whoever that guy hired to answer his phones is at retirement age and with the right energy and enthusiasm, the job is mine.