'Mr. Reynolds, come here, I want you'

Ma Bell has scotched the rumor that Burt Reynolds made his telephone credit card number public, donating the digits to his fans for free long-distance calls. Reynolds' press agent, David Gershenson, confided to the Washington Post: "I told Burt about it . . . he was really upset."

And why not? Burt has been telling interviewers for years that he wants more than anything to become a father, and, as every father and mother knows, the first step to a well-planned parenthood is to save up for those phone bills that start coming in about 15 years after the first "Da-da."

The rumor is being dismissed as a "college prank." But why, Ma Bell must be asking herself, do people always seem to think of poor phone company when they're feeling prankish?

Well, in the first place, of course, the phone company isn't the poor phone company. But that's not the whole story. No prankster started a rumor, for instance, that Burt Reynolds had made public his American Express card number.

Our theory goes like this: Jokes about the phone company are more than a childish strategy for "getting even" with Ma Bell's bills. We are trying to "get even" with the telephone itself, that gadget whose cord snakes into our kitchens, our offices, our bedrooms -- everywhere.

We tend to be as ambivalent -- as two-way -- about the telephone as mouthpiece and receiver. Of all our ingenious inventions, the telephone is the servant that most successfully operates as master. The car we can park in the garage. The television set we can flick off. See who's boss?

The telephone rings, and see who jumps.

If it were the front doorbell, you could sneak to your upstairs window -- you know, the one with the extra-thick curtain -- and peek out to see who's there, and then it's too late. The stranger is in the door -- or worse, the friend with a filibusteering power that even Strohm Thurmond would envy.

There is an invariable law of telephony that says: the longer the phone call, the less prepared you are for it, mentally and physically. As the marathon monologist goes on and on, you sit on the edge of the tub, dripping colder and colder water, huging your clammy towel about you while the long night closes in.

Or else you're trapped in the kitchen, just inches away at full extension from the sandwich you have prepared for your already-delayed lunch.

See the edges of the whole wheat begin to curl?

See the lettuce beginning to turn the color of the whole wheat?

What is it about the telephone that paralyzes us into politeness? How we miss the body language that can

There seems to be nothing between "Yes . . . yes . . . oh yes!m and "Make it quick . . . can't talk . . . gotta go." Click.

And then, of course, you have to call back to apologize.

How in the world did the first of the phoned folks cope when Alexander Graham Bell was saying brusque things like, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you"?

The telephone is a tryanny against whcih we have no code of resistance. It holds both parties in its grip -- the caller as well as the called.

For the half of us that hungers to talk and, yes, listen, there is an opposing self that wants solitude. Silence.

That part of us wants to light up every switchboard in the country in one giant yak-yak that will leave the coaxial cables molten and smoking -- in a terminal state of self-destruct.

That part of us fantasizes 100 million Americans calling 100 million other Americans on Burt Reynolds's credit card, followed by a peace so sweet and profound we would-be hermits could hear a cactus rustle rustle in our desert or a pine tree break on our mountaintop.

That part of us agrees with Mark Twain: "If Bell had invented a muffler or a gag, he would have done a real service."

Then we pick up the phone to pass on the quote.

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