The Chronicler, like all gossips, likes to talk, whether in person or on the telephone.
However, the Chronicler's family, the Chronics, seldom remembers to turn on the answering machine. That's not as bad as it might be, because the answering machine itself, despite its horrifying cost, has an unfortunate habit of editing out the first word of any recorded message, like some electronic censor gone mad.
When the machine is turned on, the devil in it insists on grabbing the call after two rings, willy-nilly. The Chronics, who are not joggers, never could run fast enough to beat the machine. As as result, they then have to suffer ad nauseum listening to the recorded Chronicler reciting: "please wait for the beep before you speak."
Anyway, when Bell Atlantic sent out multicolor brochures announcing the invention of the age, "Answer Call" (a k a Voice Mail), it seemed a welcome alternative. For $5 a month, an electronic secretary would take up residence in the central phone system and not only answer calls but record them. No visible presence would clutter the telephone table.
However, nothing is easy, as the Chronicler discovered when trying to order this marvel. At first, Bell Atlantic's 800 number would ring, and ring and ring, and no one would answer. Obviously they hadn't put in Answer Call. When finally the Bell employees got themselves together to connect, their electronic voices would announce "calls will be answered in turn." What seemed a few hours later, a person, alleging to be real, said Bell wasn't taking orders for more than a week. And, after they did, it would be 10 working days -- at least -- before they'd deign to install Answer Call. And they didn't sound that willing to do it, even then. Reverse salesmanship? Trying to make one hunger for the unattainable? They even cast aspersions at the Chronicler's exchange number.
Eventually, the wonder was promised for Aug. 3. But Aug. 3 came and went without Answer Call. Every day, the Chronicler called the 800 number. When it was answered, the anonymous, but seemingly real (though how do we know?) successive voices disclaimed any knowledge of when -- or if. As a pacifier, after a few days, one voice introduced Ms. Set Up, who was to be one's guide into the new world. Once the switch was turned at Central and the phone was plugged into Answer Call, one was directed to dial Ms. Set Up's number and confide her a seven-digit telephone number and a four-digit pass number.
Ever after, by calling still another number, one would be provided with messages. No one promised that the messages would be from literary agents wishing to buy novels, rich uncles announcing legacies or employers doubling salaries. But Answer Call did promise to listen in case these worthies called.
Meanwhile, dutifully, 19 times a day, the Chronicler would call up Ms. Set Up, punch in the seven-digit number as instructed -- twice. At which point the insincere Ms. Set Up would ask a second time for the seven-digit number -- but not the four-digit pass number -- and then, with an audible sneer added to her already uppity voice, would only say, "Thank you for calling Bell Atlantic. Call again. Goodbye!"
And then one day, when calling home from the office, the Chronicler found that pushy Ms. Set Up had started intercepting all calls and demanding seven-digit numbers of all callers. When the callers, frightened by the demand, put in their numbers, Set Up would scorn them with her "Goodbye" retort. And, of course, not take a message.
After pleas to Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Johnson in C&P repair (do you think these are noms d' telephone?),and a second invasion by Ms. Set Up, finally a learned voice called Larry Bryce (now that sounds like a real name) called from C&P repair and said he'd fix it. Five minutes later he did. And when C&P called to say Answer Call had been turned on, why dear Miss Call (a modest, friendly voice compared to the snobbish Ms. Set Up) cleverly recorded the message.
In the days since, the Chronicler has only had one other message, but it's nice to know that Miss Call is on the job if anyone does have something to say.
Anyway, all of this is a long way around to recall when the Chronics were fortunate enough to live in Belize City, where the telephones were castoffs from Zanzibar.
That African metropolis, when it put in a modern phone system, had sold its discards to Belize (population 30,000) in Central America. Though this was in the 1960s, the phones themselves were priceless antiques, circa Early Alexander Graham Bell French sets, the mouthpiece and ear cleverly in one hand-held unit, the box supporting a crank to summon the operator. The whole was ornamented with hand-painted pink flowers and gilt curlicues.
The phone had other interesting attributes. When the bell rang, often there was no one on the other end. Yet when you picked it up to make a call, sometimes another voice already would be waiting. Anyway, in 1961, Hurricane Hattie blew into town and blew out the phone system. After the little Chronics and the Chronicler were evacuated, we tried to call back to Belize. The Washington long distance operator came back and said in a shocked and unbelieving voice, "They don't have a telephone system in Belize!"
For a year after Hattie, Belize had no telephone system. So instead people penned elegant little notes on their best paper (though, sad to say, much was literally watermarked by Hattie), wrote "By Hand" in the right-hand corner of the envelope and went to the front porch and yelled. Any one of many small, enterprising children, hardly as big as a proper envelope, would then present himself and, for a suitable fee, transport the message in person.
The system worked fine. The grammar school children made chocolate bar money. The messages were eventually delivered and were often answered by Return Child, who thereby earned a second fee. Everyone hated it when the phone system was back in service.
Of course today, in Washington, such a people-to-people system would never work, since many grammar school students already have more profitable employment. But it's a nice thought.