The Big Read: Phone calls liberate us from ourselves
Ninety-one percent of American teenagers do not use their smart phones for making voice calls. The number of phone calls made in the world has dropped consistently every year since 2007.
1. When I was a kid I saw a cartoon in the newspaper that filled me with dread. It was a Hi and Lois strip, and I forget the punchline but their teenage son Chip, the one with the shaggy fringe and the backwards cap, was sitting beside the telephone, trying to work up the nerve to call a girl in his school. It struck me with a cold kind of awe that one day, as part of the process of growing up, I would have to pass through the same ritual. Could I do it? Was it conceivable that one day I would be a person of sufficient substance and self-confidence to cold-call a woman who isn't a member of my family and foist my fragile, stammering conversational self upon her? It was beyond the power of my imagining. What would I say? What would happen if there was any silence? Oh my god, silence! Wouldn't the atoms of my body just separate through sheer shame? Why couldn't I have been raised by the Maasai tribes of the East African plains who, so I'd read in a Willard Price book, initiated their boys into manhood by sending them out into the night with a spear to kill a lion? I would face a lion over a telephone any day.
2. Last year I was walking along the road a little exuberant after some good news and beer, and I called one of my dearest pals to suggest a drink and she answered in a panic saying, "What's wrong?" We'd been friends for years and we'd never spoken on the phone. I've called her four or five times since then, and she's never answered. In December I announced I was embarking on a policy of having more telephone conversations. Waves of panic rippled outwards through my contact list. Within an hour my tautological friend Ami called me. "Ami," I cried joyfully. "Mon ami!" But Ami wasn't there for a chinwag. "I'm just calling you to make sure you don't call me," said Ami.
3. When I was an anguished student I had a girlfriend who lived far away. We wrote letters every day that would cross in the air between Cape Town and Grahamstown, heavy with long words and long distance and longing. There were no cellphones then, and there was no landline where I lived because my housemates didn't have faraway girlfriends and were not keen to subsidise my nocturnal murmurings and susurration. Every Sunday night at Carte Blanche time I would walk up the road, jingling and jangling like a brooding Tambourine Man, my pants-pockets bulging like jodhpurs with handfuls of loose coins, to the payphone outside the post office where I'd wait, strung out like a junkie until the appointed hour and insert the coins one by one with trembling hands, so anxious and breathless that my chest ached.
Not all the conversations were good, in fact most were bad, which isn't surprising when you're 20 years old. How can so slender a machine as that built upon two shy voices bear such a freight of expectation and demand, such cargo of hope and personal history? How can it deliver us from ourselves? There were valleys of misunderstanding, chasms of insecurity. Silences were parsed, words made us flinch; what was open became withheld. We doubted ourselves and we hid that by doubting each other. Maybe we should have stuck to letters, the way kids today stick to texts, but then we would have lost half the point. We would have been safe behind our pens or our screens instead of being out there running the risk of being hurt or hurtful, or not being enough. Our hearts would never have raced; I would never have heard her laugh.
4. Once I was in London having a panic attack that lasted a week. The world seemed unbearably hard and I felt unbearably inadequate to meet it. I holed up in a hotel room and sent texts to everyone I knew, and each one I received back was a slender thread that led my eye to daylight, but one friend, my friend John, phoned me and kept talking for hours and hours and hours until I could breathe again. I felt the weight of his phone bill building like a wave but he kept talking. He must have said good things but I can't remember what they were, I only remember his voice in my ear, sometimes gentle, sometimes joking, but something physical, like a hand on my head so that I would know I wasn't alone.