Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Who's There?

By Lindsey Lane

APRIL 6, 1998:  He slipped past my first line of defense by asking if I were busy. Then he rolled his entire rap - come on, proposition, and seduction into one simple question. The next thing I knew I had Caller ID. Telemarketers never ask you if you're busy. They call you up with a big hard-on to sell you something and start spewing their propaganda the minute you say hello. At the very least, their approach is rude and inspires a retaliatory rudeness. For some, telemarketers are akin to maggots and real pleasure can be had eviscerating them. For me, it's enough to cut them off at the knees with a quick, "I'm busy" or "I'm on the other line." Click.

But this guy. This guy had me pegged. Maybe telemarketing seminars have refined their techniques. Maybe they're trying different approaches for different demographic groups. Maybe they've figured out that college graduate women between the ages of 35-45 get suckered by the bold and brash approach when it's flavored with bowing and scraping and general obsequiousness. A little Stanley Kowalski mixed with the gentleman caller. One part Jack Nicholson sneer stirred gently with three parts doe-eyed Brad Pitt.

His line went something like this: "Miss Lane, I'm really sorry to interrupt your day but I just have one question and then I'll leave you alone: How would you like to try Caller ID free for one month?"

And then silence. No hard sell. No pumping the product. Nothing. Not only did he nail the opening line but he had sense enough to stay out of the way and let me make up my own mind. Imagine a telemarketer listening to someone think. Imagine those masters of belittlement believing that someone had some knowledge of the product besides them. Imagine a mind on the other end of the phone.

Who was this guy?

Of course, I said yes. And while he "bothered me with just a few more questions," I sort of languished on the other end of the phone, faint from being swept off my feet (just to push the analogy a little further). Then, we hung up. I imagined him swaggering up to the front of the telemarketing room, handing in another order, adding another hash mark under his name and than standing back to admire his score while adjusting his pants or doing whatever it is that men do.

A couple of days later, the little box arrived and I hooked it up underneath my desk. It didn't make sense to put it right in the middle of the kitchen. Wasn't it sort of like a spy device? Isn't that what all the billboards infer? You have a radar detector but not one of these? And There's a name for people who hang up. It seemed to me that the whole idea behind this gizmo is "Information Is Power." And the power comes from gathering information that people don't know you have.

illustration by Roy Tompkins

The first call came from my running partner. I looked at the box. It took me two rings to figure out who it was because even though the number was familiar, the name with it wasn't. "Oh yeah, that's her boyfriend." As I picked up the phone, I wondered if I really needed to know this spurious information like whose name people's phones are listed under. When I answered, she said, "Why do you have Caller ID?"

Taken aback, I stammered something about trying it out. How did she know I had it? She explained the whole idea of Caller ID pissed her off so she got the call blocker feature which blocks her number from being scanned if someone has Caller ID. Unless she runs into a box that blocks blocked calls. Apparently, my box did that so she had to unblock her phone in order to put her call through. Geez, it's like we'd had an argument without ever opening our mouths.

Whenever the phone rang, I ran to my office and peeked under the desk to see who was calling. If the number was familiar, I had to decide if I wanted to talk to whoever was calling. If I didn't know the number, I'd ask myself if I wanted to find out. Somehow when J. Alfred Prufock was preparing his face to meet the faces that he'd meet, I don't think this is what he had in mind.

Of course, some callers hung up without leaving a message. Then what? Do I call up the people I know and play like I was thinking about them or reveal my source? Do I dial the strange numbers and ask them who they are and why they were prowling around my fiber optics? I began to long for the simple uncomplicated ring and quick decision of whether I was too busy to answer the phone.

And then there were the calls that registered 'unavailable' on the digital screen. Were they telemarketers? Or long distance? If I didn't answer those calls and they didn't leave a message, I found myself wondering who they might have been and why they didn't leave a message.

This was not power. This was clutter.

The final straw came when my boyfriend and I had a fight. He did not know I had Caller ID and called 10 times, never leaving a message. I didn't want to know this. If I'd come home to no box, I wouldn't have been any wiser. Now I knew stuff. And with that knowledge comes added responsibility. I didn't like feeling his unleashed pain and frustration in the form of numbers. What was I supposed to do? Call him? Wait and see if he called an eleventh time? As the different scenarios paraded past my mind's eye, I became more pissed off about knowing more than I wanted to know and feeling like I had to do something about it.

Needless to say, I didn't keep the service. The phone company told me to keep the box in case I should change my mind. I doubt I will. Sometimes, things have to get complicated before they get very clear. And now the equation is pretty simple: If the phone rings, I answer it. If I'm out or busy, I don't. If the callers leave a message, great. If they don't, I'm none the wiser. All the rest of the Caller Identification information is static.

As for the telemarketing guy, I sometimes wonder if he'll call back with some new strategy to entice me into the service. I wonder what his approach might be. Maybe a combination of the sinister and conspiratorial with some self-deprecating goofiness. A Gary Oldham and Matthew Modine mix. It might be interesting to hear his spin. If I'm around. If I'm not busy.

Lindsey Lane is a writer living in Austin.

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