Menu.gif (11003 bytes)

Carl Watson/ Fiction

Feel the Pain

The other day I saw a guy plowing toward me through the sidewalk traffic jam. It was a definite collision course and he wasn't paying attention because he was yakking away on his cellular phone, probably closing some big business deal or talking to that helpful banker who really is interested in his life. Not far off another guy was also closing in, from the west, also with a cellular unit in hand. He seemed to be setting up a controlled substance rendezvous, unlike a third party converging from the south, who was happily and loudly blabbering away, simply trying to impress whomever was around that wanted to be impressed. I don't think his phone was even turned on.

I thus found myself at an unwilling nexus, playing the role of pivotal victim in the competing ambitions of people I didn't even know. I felt small and used, angry and confused. Various solutions came to mind—baseball bats, fishing line, guns, empty syringes. Somebody has to do something. People with cellular phones are beginning to rival in-line skaters as the number one pedestrian annoyance. The beeping of these status symbols has become so ubiquitous, it competes for my attention with the noise of personal pagers and the car horns of aggressive but very important people in a hurry to be all that they can be.

Of course, I don't know if any of them reached their goals that day. But I wasn't even close to mine, which made me feel like abusing myself, so I went home and chased a fistful of pills with a 40-ouncer of obscure malt liquor. I knew I was asking for a huge headache but I wanted to punish myself for not being the man I thought I should have been. But you can't be anybody if you don't exist in media, as they say, and who was there to help fulfill my needs for submissive profiteering and identity shoring-up but Ma herself: Old Ma Bell. Like cookies from home, there was a letter on my coffee table about how she could be of service. I went to bed.

Indeed, that night I had a dream of Ma: a willful, badgering dominatrix-type CEO/Matriarch, towering above a plebeian population of vacuous sycophants, using the black (and now virtual) phone lines that bind our lives as whips, the incessant smacking lashes of which could only serve as painful affirmation of a devolving humanities' enslavement to media-driven psychological manipulation.

I apologize. The preceding thought matrix is painful to a point, in that I have always been a firm believer in the sadomasochistic undertones of the 'service' society. And now that New York Bell has sublimated itself under the acronym NYNEX, they launch their periodic campaigns of Service-Sadism not only with a calculated fury but a certain amount of anonymity. But I've grown jaded I suppose. It wasn't so long ago that Call Waiting actually seemed sinister to me. Now I laugh and scratch my head. I remember how on Saturday mornings, I would be regularly awoken, as I am on many a morning, by a peppy-voiced little doggerel goddess wondering why I haven't hooked up Call Waiting yet. I say I already spend enough time waiting. She said I could save somebody's life if only I would take advantage of their free connection offer.

Knowing, of course, no one could be as rude as the phone co. itself, I told her I don't like Call Waiting because it forces me to be rude. Then I hung up. I do want to miss some things, and with Call Waiting you can't screen potential pests if you're already on the phone, so you end up having to go to work, or to a bad poetry reading, or some other hideous public event, when you could have easily pretended you weren't home. I may have been missing calls but I was saving hours of quality time.

'Ma' however doesn't really want us to save time, she wants us to subscribe. It's always a special deal too, like the aforementioned absolutely free connection (like it actually costs money to flick a switch down there at Annoyance Central). These special deals are forever on the verge of expiring too. Thus a false sense of urgency and potential loss is created which infiltrates our mundane lives until many people no longer think it odd when they begin to act like manic hyperactive chickens in the privacy of their own homes, talking to themselves, bumping into walls, walking the streets obsessively imagining the calls they are missing, and no doubt certain that their careers should be much further along.

I say 'false' sense of urgency because you can always wait until the next day and there will be another almost exactly similar special deal that Ma and her army of procurement police will call to tell you about. Or if you simply wait long enough they just give you Call Waiting for free anyway—a marketing trick culled from the drug wars—figuring you'll want to (no, have to) buy it after that. So they gave it to me. Funny thing was, nine times out of ten it was the phone company itself interrupting my call, either to make sure I had Call Waiting or to sell me the Call Waiting I already had.

At first I wasn't sure what the strategy was, but I figured it out: If cyberspace is the great collective unconscious, what Call Waiting does, is to put you in touch with all the little subconscious messages coming down that information super-pike. These messages could be friends or associates, but like I said, often they turn out to be NYNEX itself—for it is in this way the Phone Co. replaces the subconscious (aka, Voice of your Mother) thus reclaiming the original title of 'Ma' Bell, while effectively seeming to deny it.

Or to put it in academic terms: it is as if entertainment classics such as Route 66, and On the Road have recontextualized themselves within the framework of ancient Chinese medicine, and the communication lines coming into our homes (heads), now serve, less as electro-umbilical cords and more like psychotic threads ending in pin tips or fine sharp needles capable of pricking the mind itself—thus the much anticipated Information Superhighway becomes a kind of cyber-acupuncture, stimulating the intersections in the flow of energy which connect the individual to the cosmos at large. And it is a bitter, petty cosmos at that.

Let's pursue the ramifications of said pettiness for a second: let's say my conscious mind (or Ego) is like Operator Central, and all these little desperate people are being placed on hold, simply because I cannot live without them, and supposedly, they can't live without me either. Perhaps it brings a tear to my arrogant eye to think of them sitting, waiting on their phones—while I yack it up with somebody else—jealous perhaps for being delegated to a less important rung on the ladder of my personal-best, goal-driven life.

It is a grim scenario indeed, but it is via such imagery that Call Waiting feeds the bitter infighting which maintains the competitive social hierarchy that makes capitalism (and Kulture) work. For if people weren't being constantly pitted against each other, they might not feel so insignificant and would not thereafter be driven to over-compensate through great deeds of art, architecture and/or domestic violence. The innuendo here is—society could collapse any minute, and the ones who would be responsible for that collapse will be those who don't have Call Waiting. It's safe to say no one wants to be responsible for the breakdown of society, thus Guilt takes its rightful place behind the steering wheel of the Vehicle of Western Civilization.

This 'On the Road,' Information Superhighway subtextual metaphor continues to serve us as we examine the Phone Co's TV ads—vulnerable people just like you and me stuck out on the Highway of Life, as the Hard Rain is a Fallin, unable to get the Car of Our Dreams started, unable to fix said vehicle ourselves, unable to escape, unable to get through to mom, dad or the banker. In such a scenario, family bonds etc., in fact the very fragile net of civilization itself is evidently woven of phone lines, virtual or otherwise, phone lines brimming with friendly voices calling us home and out of harm's way.

These ads work in the same way psychoanalysis does, by subtly getting us to believe we don't have any control over external events (or ourselves). Thus by offering relief, and release, the ads provide a script for pleasure. S&M works in much the same way, establishing a script, or routine, for pleasure. The difference is that in a service society, once we become dependant upon it, the script either decays (via planned obsolescence), or is taken away and we are then asked to subscribe to a service that will restore or maintain it for us.

And when you come you think of it, your life probably hasn't been that much fun lately and that's why the phone company can call you at 10 am Saturday morning to tell you how you can't live another day without Call Waiting. They know you're faking it, you're not really making it. So what starts out as a service becomes a form of protection. Just like auto makers now have ads subtly hinting that you might die if you don't buy their cars, the Phone Co. ads show you how your life will fall apart without Call Waiting: We see an irate friend complaining about someone who inconsiderately lives sans le service. A boss pacing the floor because a big deal won't go through. A job lost. A relationship on the brink. A special friend with a broken heart somewhere in the world. All are saved from neglect, failure and destitution because of Call Waiting.

I often wish I actually had one of those special someones somewhere in the world who might comfort me through the increasing hours of guilt and doubt that the media instills. But these special people don't really exist. They're just products of some ad writer's imagination, much like health insurance, new improved cleaning fluids, or job security. Not that there aren't jobs, it's just that most jobs are degrading. I know, I had one once. I may have even got it because I had Call Waiting, I decline to remember.

But while my memory has waxed and waned significantly in the last few years, my peripheral vision has not. And what I increasingly see in that gaudy Zone of Signs is a proliferation of hyphenated ad-speak names for yet more conveniences. Thus even as Call Waiting fades into the background, a new dizzying array of services becomes available—Call-Answering, Call-Forwarding, Call-This, Call-That. Caller-ID being one of the hot newcomers, for hyper-paranoid people who want to know who is calling before they answer (since most of us are either afraid of our friends, or don't really like them).

The problem is, I wouldn't recognize anybody's phone number anyway and precious minutes of personal productivity would be lost as I scrambled to look up the number pixilating across my screen. Another part of the Caller-ID package, apparently, is a free sign to hang in your window—this is so hobos, thugs and rapists who are down in the street, and who may be thinking of giving you a prank call, can see that you have Caller-ID and therefore decline to prank call you (which is a mute issue if they're calling from a booth). All of which begs the question—why does NYNEX give out our phone numbers anyway, if they're so damned concerned about our privacy.

And now of course there's *69 (I won't even begin to exploit the psycho sexual ramifications of the number itself) which poses as a service until you try to call your spouse from the site of your adultery pretending you're somewhere else. Suddenly it strikes you—you've been duped. Your needs have been used against you again. Not to mention your vanity. I have actually seen people wait for their answering machine to screen the call, then when no message was left, they would rush to the phone and press *69 only to have the call forwarded to the virtual receptacle of some person they didn't want to talk to in the first place. Thus upset, the first party *66ed or *88ed the call, thinking to plague the false friend and punish him for his non-committal attitude. However as the second party's machine needed to realign itself after each call there was a constant busy signal. Due to various synaptic delays in the network, the return call did eventually break through. But 66 was the access number for the message service where with the help of some electronic fluke a portion of the first party's OGM had been recorded. So it was that via these incestuous circuitous doings involving several so-called 'services' glitches and overloaded lines, the original recipient of the unwanted call ended up receiving her own answering machine message an hour later. It's kind of like those comic stories where someone finds out they are their own grandfather, except it wasn't funny. I've already got enough to worry about.

We are supposed to worry about phone solicitation, so it's ironic that the worst offender is the Phone Company(s) itself. Once they called me up and badgered me into a long-distance program called Call-Saving, or True Saving, or something like that. They said I didn't have to pay for it, it was free and they were giving it to me anyway. I got a whole packet of material in the mail telling me how great this was. Last month I saved 22 cents on long distance calls. The stamp cost 29 cents. Add another 10 cents for paper and printing. I used to wish the telephone company would give me credit for all the paper waste that would no longer occur if they stopped sending me junk mail. Now I just wish they would leave me alone.

I think it was Telly Savalas who said "Feel the pain, baby." Or was it "Feel the Velvet." I don't remember. Of course, he didn't work for the Phone Co. I think it was an ad for cheap liquor. Maybe even the same bottle of Old River Bottom that gets passed between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton as they sit in the front seat of their virtual Toyota, driving into the future. Their faces flushed red from the speed of travelling so fast.