Sorry, right number

By

ALEXANDER Graham Bell is generally given credit for inventing the telephone. As far as I know he was never punished for it. According to certain ads, this instrument is not merely a heaven-sent device for communicating over long distances, it is a Promethean extension of one's very being. It isn't only for speaking words, they say, but for reaching out and ``touching'' someone. What kind of ghoulish feely-dealy is involved here?

I don't think of our telephone so much as a touching instrument as I do a grabbing instrument. If it has any touching qualities it is only in the vicinity of the pocketbook.

Grandmothers and grandfathers are advertised as the ideal victims for telephone use. On TV ads they are pictured happily chuckling over transmitted good news that the grandchildren have made the hockey team. Ha-ha! As a grandfather I can testify that delighted grandchildren saying they made the hockey team is not a typical phone call. A typical phone call in our house is from a total stranger.

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Oh, granted, he knows my name and most of my business, but a total stranger nonetheless. He is usually connected with some insurance-type institution in a state such as Nebraska which wishes only to do me a favor. Or he might represent an investment group that has somehow sensed I have $5,000 stupidly invested at only 8.5 percent. It seems I could be earning twice as much by investing in an oil swamp near Biloxi or Yoakum Corners. It is amazing how many people I don't know want to help me out.

My wife and I respond to these prying questioners differently. When a well-modulated voice asks her if she has a hospital plan, she (in a less-modulated voice) says, ``None of your business.'' Then she hangs up with a smartness that does credit to whatever plastic manufacturing company made the phone.

For my part, I tend to be somewhat wishy-washy. Or maybe some unresolved phone call in my youth warps my judgment.

``How many people reside in your home?'' a stranger recently asked with compelling gentleness.

``How many reside in your home?'' I replied with sweetness.

The voice firmed up. ``Excuse me, but this is a serious business survey conducted in your community so that our company can serve you better. At the present time, how many people in your home are under the age of 30?''

``Three,'' I said.

``Three. And what is their relation to you?''

``No relation. They are here to fix the water heater.''

End of conversation.

When our telephone rings there is a race not to answer it. In one case where I lost the race it was an organization selling cemetery lots with a view.

``With a view?'' I said, bewildered. ``I'm not interested.''

``We have cheaper ones without a view. . . .''

``No thanks,'' I snapped. ``I'm happy with the view I've got.''

Some phone calls are ingeniously designed to keep you from hanging up. This is the ``Debbie-type'' phone call.

At the time, I was in the shower. In ads selling telephones on TV no one is ever in the shower when the phone rings, but in my world it is fairly standard. If you will notice, ringing phones are seldom in the room you are in. They are installed so that you continuously run from one room to the other.

On this particular ring-a-ding day, I grabbed a towel and trailed a sudsy path to the telephone. A joyous, subtly sensuous voice greeted me. ``Guernsey? Guernsey Le Pelley?''

My dubious, nonsensuous voice said, ``Yes.''

``This is Debbie!'' Long pause. Excited breathing from the other end.

I did a fast, guilty search through memory lane and came up sadly empty. ``I don't know any Debbie.''

``Debbie! Debbie Forsythe. Ron Lieberwitz suggested I call you.''

``I don't know any John Liverwurst.''

``Lieberwitz.''

``I don't know him, either.''

The voice then came to full feminine bloom. ``Ohhhh, then you probably don't know of the special opportunity being offered you. A chance to get your feet wet in a brand new enterprise!''

I told Debbie my feet were already wet and I was dripping on the carpet. It somehow spoiled the romantic illusion, and Debbie left me in the lurch for greener pastures.

Not all the calls are commercial. There is the random contact with a flat-voiced teen-ager. ``Hello. Is Ralph there?''

``You have the wrong number.''

The toneless voice cannot accept this. She asks if this isn't such-and-such a number.

``Yes, it is,'' I mumble, ``but . . .''

``Then why can't I speak to Ralph?''

``Because Ralph doesn't live here!''

``Oh . . . don't tell me he's gone back to Orlando!''

At this point one hangs up, or else gets immersed in utter confusion.

Even as I sit here the telephone is starting to ring again. If I keep tapping at this typewriter my wife will have to answer. And there . . . she does . . . fourth ring!

I can't hear the conversation clearly, but it sounds like the Firefighters Association selling tickets to what they waggishly call a ball. No. Wait. She is yelling at me.

It's the grandchildren, for heaven's sake. They've made the hockey team. Mr. Le Pelley, come here, I want you. Alexander Graham Bell

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