Where I'm Calling From

If our smartphones connect us more than ever before, why do I sometimes feel untethered?

Can you hear me now?

I called my aunt the other day. "Hi, it's Anndee," I said. But she already knew; her caller ID had announced me, like the starched butler at a diplomats' dinner, even before I opened my mouth.

My own phones do the same, of course. If a call trills while I'm, say, making sautéed tilapia, I can glance to see whether it's my best friend, my mother or the Democratic National Committee — in short, whether it's someone for whom I should rinse cornmeal-crusted fish off my hands.

When I was a child and the phone rang, we lifted the receiver and said, "Hello?" Our voices arced upward in greeting and curiosity. Sometimes the question was mutual, a tango of non-recognition: "'Who's calling?' Well, who is this?" Every call flung open possibility like a blind date; there was no technology to vet us at the door.

Back then, we phoned places, not people. I came home from kindergarten with a construction-paper tag dangling from my neck with red yarn; it bore my name, address and phone number in Miss McFadden's perfectly round hand. My first homework was to memorize those coordinates, my place on the planet.

Our number was easy: TR7-6166. TR for "Trinity." Friends' numbers began with Midway (MI) or Mohawk (MO) or Juniper (JU); my mother, at work in North Philadelphia, was Livingston (LI) 9-9000.

Those letters were mysterious, mnemonic. "Trinity" made me think of the elf-sized houses in Old City, three cramped rooms stacked atop one another. "Livingston," for some reason, always reminded me of aspen leaves spinning in a breeze. And "Midway" was a rollicking carnival, sticky with cotton candy, pulsing with light.

I knew the actual phones were in more pedestrian places: the Morgensterns' pantry just off the kitchen; my mother's office near Broad and Olney. I could picture them: bulky objects in serious shades of green or black, bolted to the wall or docked on the desk, flat gray cord snaking to the wall jack, kinked umbilical bonding the handset to the mothership.

Even the innovations of my teen years — svelte Princess models, push-buttons to replace the dialer's lazy orbit, even the ultra-cool phone I got for my 13th birthday, with a clear Lucite base revealing a tangle of wires and bells — were incremental, technological updates but hardly paradigm shifts.

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For decades, the essence of phone calling remained the same: you dialed a number (a mere seven digits, unless you were calling long-distance), you got a busy signal (remember those?) or an endless, burbling ring, or a person (not necessarily the one you wanted). You identified yourself and, while you waited for your best friend to pad down to the kitchen, you twisted the knotty plastic cord around your finger until it turned blue.

It's hard to remember that the landline — now moving rapidly out of mode — was far more private than the "party line" telephones of my father's childhood in Brooklyn. If someone wanted a member of his family, they phoned the corner pharmacy and a kid was dispatched to pound on the apartment door. By then, half the neighbors knew who was calling whom … and, probably, why.

Now our phoning is ever more granular. We're not calling neighborhoods or even houses; instead, we phone up people's pockets, the jumbled bottoms of their handbags. Person-to-person is the rule, not the exception, and caller ID is the spoiler alert. Some days, I think our portable, pocketable, personal phones are the best thing since the everything bagel. We've cut the cord, literally: Call in your Subaru ("Look, Ma; no hands!"); call from the restaurant; chat away as the stylist clips your bangs. Wander as far as you like from the leafy canopy of LIvingston or the cozy confines of TRinity. Leave behind the whole notion of locale, so quaint and irrelevant. As long as your battery's charged, you're still connected!

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Maybe. There are other days, when I watch people stream out of the train station or the high school, black plastic wafers pressed to their ears, plugged-in automatons with minds focused anywhere but here, I think, sadly, that we're ever more atomized, untethered in some essential way. We're always moving. We're hardly home.

The busy signal is long gone, though we claim to be busier than ever: "Whoops, hang on a minute; I've got another call." Thanks to our smart devices, we can chat with Grandma while Googling "best paella in Barcelona." We can even dissemble: "Oh, that shrieking? Just, um, some kids outside." It's probably not long, though, until every call pings in with both a photograph and its own GPS coordinates; just as you'll see immediately who's on the other end, you'll also know whether your caller is at Hooters or the post office. And when that happens, will we feel more seen, more known?

"Who is this?" Once upon a time, telephone calls begged that question. Today's question is different, though perhaps equally existential: "Where are you?" The answer could be anywhere: at the dentist; on safari in Kenya; hunkered over a Heineken in a Cincinnati dive. "I'm here, under a hard blue sky, between exits 8 and 9 on the Jersey Turnpike, in the middle of a daydream about dolphins. And where are you?" It's worth a pause, a ponder: In these peripatetic times, reachable 24/7 at a number uncoupled from an actual address, with no umbilical tugging us back to the mothership (or at least, to the cozy telephone corner), where are we, indeed?

It took me a long time to acquire a cell phone, even longer to remove it from its box and press it ambivalently into use. I got caller ID only when it came, free, with a Verizon upgrade. But even my smartest phone is occasionally at a loss.

It happens to you, too. The phone jangles from your jeans pocket or the kitchen counter. "Caller unknown," it teases. Could be anyone: the MacArthur folks declaring you a genius; a long-forgotten friend from second grade. Maybe the possibility intrigues you enough to wipe the spaghetti sauce from your fingers and swipe at the screen. Because you still crave that mystery, you still dream of it, though the MIdway is quiet and the JUniper has faded: the momentarily held breath, the door you nudge open with your expectant, uncertain "Hello?" The connection that might change your life.

Tags: memoirs