We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
I used to not get voice mail; now I don’t get e-mail. I think this could have something to do with festering alienation, rampant disaffection, cross-racial polarization, or the upsurge in standoffishness in the face of the new millennium. Or maybe my friends all hate me.
I used to worry that the voice-mail drought was due to a phone-line malfunction, so I continually tested it by calling my bank’s automated inquiry number. After I got an e-mail account, I began incessantly checking for messages when I wasn’t inquiring about ATM transactions, making it impossible, I feared, for anyone to reach me. So I finally installed a second phone line, and now I’m able to not get e-mail and voice mail at the same time. I think this is what’s meant by the communications revolution.
I used to think that my friends didn’t call because they were busy juggling the demands of careers and family breakups, but now I think that they don’t call because not speaking to me is what they value most about our friendship. In fact, if we actually traded e-mail or voice mail, I’m pretty sure that they might want to terminate the relationship altogether. This makes me think that I’d be better off with friends that I’ve never met, like my neighbors. At least when they don’t visit, it’s not because they can’t find parking.
I used to live in an efficiency, but when no one visited I attributed it to the lack of space and moved to a studio. The studio was the same size as the efficiency, but I thought my friends might be fooled by the higher rent and more-upscale-sounding environment and actually come over. Now I live in a co-op, but no one comes over here, either, so I’m thinking of moving to a house. A house used to be a house, but then it became a nest. Now a house is a house again, although it’s not necessarily a home. It could be a home if someone called or sent e-mail, or if someone other than the Chinese-food delivery guy ever stopped by, but otherwise it’s only a house, which used to be known as a dwelling.
I used to think that my friends avoided me, but visited our other friends. But I’d spend days at their homes, and their phones would never ring either, so I figured that everyone also hated them, including, perhaps, me. Sometimes I used to call before visiting, but, coincidentally, they were always on the way out. Then they all got caller ID and never seemed to be around when I phoned. After that, I used to drop by unexpectedly, but after a few hours of the phone not ringing they’d remember that they were busy or coming down with something.
I used to remember things, but now I’m forgetful. I used to run marathons, but now I take brisk walks. I used to push iron; now I’m supposed to consult my physician before exercising. I used to watch American Bandstand; now I’m terrified of teenagers. I used to engage in lively conversation; now I eavesdrop on chat rooms where strangers with names like RubbaDubDub discuss the finer points of Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat. I used to read books; now I have multimedia experiences. I once inched my way through Voltaire in French and Knut Hamsun in Norwegian; now I watch Headline News because USA Today is too in-depth. I used to feel immortal; now I realize that the only major event of my life that I still have to look forward to is my death.
This used to be called a midlife crisis, but now it’s called a passage. That’s because it used to be that middle age was old, but now middle age is young. Old isn’t old anymore, although elderly is old. Or maybe elderly is now golden. It used to be that senior citizens were old, but now they’re active. Even if they’re not active, they’re dynamic. Old people used to be aged; now they’re ageless. It used to be that life began at birth, but now it begins at 50. Old people used to get decrepit; now they age gracefully. Retirees used to get government handouts; now they get entitlements. The elderly used to be a burden; now they’re contributing members of society. Old people used to live on pensions; now they live on fixed incomes. Old people used to take ceramics classes and be ridiculed as pathetic. Now when they paint drooping tulips on prefab ashtray molds they’re heralded for living full, rich lives.
Wisdom used to come with age, but now worry comes with age. I used to worry about the Y2K computer glitch, but now I worry about the Y10K computer glitch. I used to worry about accidental nuclear blitzkriegs accompanying the new millennium and the equally awful possibilities that the paint-mixing machine at Sears would be overwhelmed by some irreparable LINUX-code glitch and only produce plumbago gray or that my toaster oven would be unable to warm the innards of frozen raspberry Pop-Tarts without also scorching the elaborate squiggles of lacquered alabaster corn syrup painted across the doughy pastry shell.
But now I worry that all those years spent adding an extra numeral to the guts of computer operating systems will be nullified eight millennia hence, when the four-digit date code will have to be increased by one. I worry that Retin-A booster shots, antioxidant suppositories, and cryogenic prostate and hip replacement surgery will so increase longevity that I’ll still be around when the celestial odometer rolls over to five digits. When that happens, I worry that I’ll have to endure the sort of silicon-chip mayhem that permanently wipes out eight thousand years of accumulated interest on my Roth IRA and leaves me having to pawn my original Woodstock tickets just to keep the landlady at bay.
I used to drink water before I exercised, but now I hydrate myself. I used to watch educational TV, but now I watch public TV. I used to be able to see animals killing each other on public TV, but now they kill each other on cable TV. These animals used to live in the jungle, but then they moved to the rain forest. Sometimes people used to invade the rain forest and upset the animals’ habitat. These people were called trespassers and environmental saboteurs, but now they’re called eco-tourists. I used to drive a used car, but then it became a pre-owned vehicle. I used to be in debt, but now I am leveraged. It used to be that you couldn’t trust anyone over 30; now you can’t trust anyone at all. My girlfriend used to cheat on me, but then she began outsourcing her sex life. I used to be celibate after that, but then everyone started talking about AIDS, so instead I became abstinent. My dentist used to pull my tongue from side to side, probe at each tooth with a sleek metal bullhook, and charge me $50 for a routine examination. Now he calls this same three-minute procedure an oral-cancer screening and charges me $100.
People used to pay teachers for private music lessons, but now they stand on street corners and expect passers-by to pay them for practicing. Some of the musicians who want me to hand over some unwanted singles are homeless people. The homeless used to be tragic societal castoffs, but now they’re urban lawn ornaments who go entirely unnoticed unless they’re playing off-key riffs from Man of La Mancha on a penny whistle and asking to be compensated for it.
One of these homeless men hangs out at a pay phone near my office. Pay phones used to be enclosed in wooden booths, but now they’re affixed to fiberboard clam shells so everyone can eavesdrop on your conversations. This homeless man stands at the pay phone and, for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, talks animatedly into the receiver, even though it’s clear that there’s no one on the other end of the line.
This used to be deemed abnormal behavior, but now everyone on the street talks to himself, so no one seems to notice. Sometimes I listen to this homeless man’s poignant soliloquies and wonder whether things used to be different for him. I wonder if he used to live in a house, and, if so, whether it was a home. I wonder if he used to have friends, and whether they’d visit or call. Maybe he used to be my neighbor, but we never met. Maybe my friends dropped him when they became friends with me. Maybe when my friends had a foot out the door when I called, they were on their way to see him. Maybe he lives on the street because he can’t bear the idea of going home to an answering machine that’s not blinking, an e-mail in-box without even messages about affordable dental plans, debt consolidation programs, and custom-tailored Hong Kong suits.
I used to think that I ought to stand beside the phone booth and impatiently ask this man if he was going to be very long, let him think that fellow pedestrians thought he was actually talking to someone. Then I used to think that I should befriend him, give him someone to really communicate with. I used to think about taking him to libraries and coffee shops with free Internet access and teaching him to send me e-mail. He could spend his days going from one keyboard to another, and I could have the ongoing thrill of seeing new messages stacked up like air traffic on a foggy holiday weekend. I could get a pager, and he could beep me. I could have him call me at home and leave voice-mail messages. We would never have to actually talk or see each other, just like real friends. I could give him rolls of quarters so he could stand at that pay phone and speak to my answering machine until his larynx failed and the tape ran out and the digital counter rolled over from 99 back to double zero. But pay phones don’t cost a quarter. They used to, of course, but things change. CP