A New Yorker mourns her answering machine

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It was finally gone. My answering machine of 10 years was now defunct, destined for the graveyard of analog answerers. I was stunned.

I thought I was going to get rid of the machine before it got rid of me. Only once in the past 10 years had it failed to take a message - a term of loyalty I have yet to experience in other relationships.

Recently, I had considered switching to voice mail. I was in the process of interviewing friends and colleagues about their various configurations of phone/fax setups at home. But, I never thought I would actually dispose of my trusty answering device.

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The day after it went, I couldn't make myself throw it out; after all, the same tape had been recording my messages since I arrived in New York in 1990 - five apartments, four roommates, and two futons ago.

In fact, I bought it before I even signed my first apartment lease. During my first couple months, I slept on a pull-out couch of a high school friend in her cheerless studio on Eighth Avenue just below Fourteenth Street.

I remember replaying one of the first messages I received from my college writing teacher: Yes, he would be happy to recommend me for the $13,500-per-year editorial assistant job at Knopf. Three days later, the editor at Knopf left a message saying the position had been offered to someone else.

Eventually, I found a small one-bedroom apartment on 16th Street to share with my older brother, who was on a traveling jag around the world. We shared the machine, as well; his voice was on the outgoing message. In the early morning hours of hazy sleep, I remember my brother's Japanese girlfriend leaving messages for him about her long-distance devotion, her sweet voice whispering broken English into the machine. He was in town, out on a date with another woman.

On my first birthday in the city, I returned home at day's end to 16 phone messages from college friends (most of whom I hadn't spoken to since graduation). A fuzzy ball of warmth radiated in my chest. I was still in the early phase of answering-machine infatuation, the number of messages was an exact measure of my self-worth. (I would like to say that I'm over this, but I still find myself calling into my machine in hopes there will be a couple of voices to liven my spirits.)

Then, there was the playwright I met at a rooftop party in Brooklyn on the Fourth of July. I spent the good part of the night figuring out how to give him my phone number, subtly.

I felt victorious by the night's end. A week later, the playwright left a message - with his name, but no phone number - and never called back. This wasn't as painful as a former flame of multiple years leaving a message about being in town: His band was playing that evening; he invited me to hear them and meet his new fiancee. This is the last time I heard his voice, more than seven years ago. Message erased.

Abbreviated messages often carried a certain weight: I remember a message left by one of my closest friends: All she said was, "It's about my dad, and it isn't good." He had been seriously ill for the past year.

Then, there was a message from the dean of a graduate school where I had been accepted into a creative-writing program. I had just sent in my deposit check and received the course materials. The dean left his name and number in a clipped voice. I could tell something was wrong. Nightmare No. 124 played out: Later, he explained that an error had been made. In fact, I had not been accepted and was still on the wait list. My check was returned. And I enrolled in another writing program. Message erased.

Short messages were not always the bearers of bad news - an editor saying he or she was interested in an article idea or my future husband (then only a "friend") calling from Denton, Texas, to say he was getting beaten up by Tony Dorsett and Randy White (read: actor in football movie, without stunt double).

I was more than happy to hear his voice on my machine. My brother was getting married to the aforementioned late-night date and I was feeling those particular pangs of loneliness that weddings can bring on. These messages were often subject to multiple replaying, just to make sure they were real. (I'm surprised the tape lasted this long.)

Now, I'm digital. I bought a new phone with a built-in machine that picks up on three rings and voice-mail service. My messages are no longer on tape, but fragments of digitized voices that I am reminded can be saved for up to 30 days.

I've decided to throw away my actual machine, but hold on to the old tape. I've considered listening to it to hear what voices still linger, but a part of me doesn't want to.

I remember a friend telling me about how she replayed her tape, hoping to hear the voice of a friend who had recently passed away. She never found his voice.

I suppose I don't want to be disappointed by what's no longer there. I'd rather imagine all of those voices still preserved - crowded alongside each other like passengers on a subway - somewhere on that thin piece of black magnetic ribbon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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