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Posted in Essays

Busy Signals

Busy Signals Posted on March 15, 2017

I heard a busy signal the other day for the first time in, well, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s been a while. Until I heard it, I hadn’t realized that it was a dying thing. Something that now seems superfluous. It occurred the other day when calling a business. I don’t think this is a common thing. I think it is on its way out and is gasping for its last breath.

I miss the busy signal. It is virtually disappearing. You can make a call now and have someone answer. Someone, something, voicemail, ACDs, VRUs, recordings, whatever. No more, or at least rarely, do you get the burnk, burnk, burnk letting you know it’s the end of the line. You’re not going anywhere until the line is free. Without the busy signal, no more do you feel the finality of being denied access. Voice mail, call waiting, call forwarding, music on hold, all those services and features you can add to your home and business lines. They have killed the busy signal.

When you used to be able to get a busy signal, indicating that someone was on the line you were calling, at least you knew where you stood. Now? You don’t know whether the person is watching for you and deciding not to pick up (caller ID), simply not answering the phone (voice mail), there but in the other electronic room with someone more important (call waiting) or indeed away from their desk (as so many say they are when one is dropped unceremoniously into their voice mailbox.)

And what about that voice mailbox thing. Don’t you kind of feel dropped into it? It’s that kind of end-of-the-line feeling. Sure you could press 0 and speak to the operator (“your call is being transferred,” she tells a million people a day) hoping that maybe, first, a person will answer, and second that they will know where the person is to whom you wish to speak. Like some sage front desk person who tracks the movement of everyone in the building.

You could press 1 for other options, but were you really looking for other options? You were looking for Pat to see if he was going to hockey practice after work. Being dropped into voicemail, you got to where you wanted to go and now there is nothing left to do. You don’t want more options; you want to talk to Pat.

If you think about it, it’s kind of lonely there at the end of the line. Maybe another option would be a little therapeutic. Perhaps to dial another extension but who are you going to call. And how long will the option lady wait until you decide to dial another extension or while you look that other extension up. Maybe she could just say, “While your deciding on what to do, here’s a little gentle, soothing music to settle your nerves…please take your time.”

If you dialed that other extension, what would you say? “Hi, I just dialed your extension because I just didn’t want to feel like the voice message I left for Pat was the end of the line. I wanted options and took the one that would give me a person.” The men in white coats would surely be at your door a short time later with that wrap around suit jacket.

And then there is the dread you would feel as you select that next extension, tapping it out with hope and longing. Longing for that human voice, the one that’s not recorded but spontaneous, real. You dial the last digit and off you go into the ring tone; booooop, booooop. And then there it is again, voicemail…an answering machine. The wondering. There? Out? Screening calls? And you are back “in the box”. This could go on for days if there was no one there…or at least until you realized it was a holiday. Life can be hard these days with all this technology.

With the busy tone, you knew there was someone there, or most likely was unless an ornery cat knocked the receiver off the cradle. But most times, you knew. You could feel it and it was a simple matter of calling back periodically to see if they were through with their call. Some phone companies now offer (“for an additional 95 cents”) to call periodically for you. Now, that’s a good service. But is it really worth $.95? Shoot, I can dial a phone. I don’t need to spend $.95 for something like that. That’s silly.

And what about dialing. Dialing is boring. Just punching buttons. Soft rubber buttons, hard plastic buttons, a plastic pad with numbers on it, a glass screen with electronic numbers behind it.

Remember those phones with the rotary dial. You can still use them, although I don’t think the phone companies like them much…too analog. Not 21st century enough. As that little dial progresses around it’s axis, it sends out a series of clicks. One click for each number. That’s why in older movies you see people repeatedly punching at the hook switch…they’re not trying to get a line, they just want to dial as quickly as possible and they don’t want to wait for that lazy rotor to finish it’s circuit. Punch more than ten times and what do you get? 10. Or to the phone company, that’s zero. “Hello, operator, get me the police, I was taking a shower and there was a man with a knife by my window.” And then the line goes dead.

Those old rotary phones were cool because you could let your finger ride along as it returned to the zero state. And, oh, wasn’t it great when a number you were calling had a zero on it. You zipped the dial all the way around with a practiced flip of your wrist and then you could ride all day. Like being on a Farris wheel for hands and not having to give another ticket for an extended ride. You just stayed on and rode it home.

I never liked the telephone numbers with a 1 in them, such a short ride and it was almost as if you just thought the number one and it would dial. Nothing to do there. Imagine if there were rotary dials on cell phones. I bet there wouldn’t be too many people making their power calls on the lightrail. Programming your auto dial numbers might be a little problematic…but an interesting visual nonetheless.

But, alas, now the busy signal is dead and the rotary phone with the great finger amusement park is pretty much gone too.

If you’re nostalgic, find a rotary and grab it. Make it work, enjoy that ride. Don’t give in to the phones that look like rotary phones. They have buttons in the shape of a rotary dial. Like that’s going to fool us.

I saw one of those old wooden phone boxes a while ago that had the pick up ear piece and the horn that sticks out the front to speak into. But you open it up and there are those hideous buttons. Hey, what’re you trying to do, give me hope that those cool phones still exist and then yank the carpet from beneath my feet. You can still find the real ones in antique shops sometimes. I always wanted one but they were $300 any time I found one. Sometimes, you can find them on eBay. And sometime, maybe, you might find one for a song. Can’t write a song, they probably take cashier’s check or PayPal.

But you won’t be able to buy the busy signal on eBay. But sometimes, you can get it for free. Find a phone that doesn’t have voice mail provided by the phone company and call its number. Then call yourself. There has to be the right phone system for it, you will probably find it at home although some work phone systems will allow you to do it. A small trick that can provide that subversive feeling of pulling something off that big telecom doesn’t want you to do. In this connected world, everyone thinks that you want to talk to someone. Electronic or not. Well, for this phone user, that’s not necessarily so. Sometimes I just want to know that I can’t get through, I’m out of options and I just have to hang up the phone and be patient.

So give it a try. Call yourself, get that busy signal fix. Enjoy the simple pleasure of not having to continue and not having to select another option. The final choice is to hang up. So do it. Then go to the window and turn your face up into the warm sunshine.

You don’t have to wait if you really don’t want to. Just pick up your cell phone, or another line on the phone system and call yourself again. Then you will get an answer and you can tell yourself about stealing a little bit of busy signal for yourself and how while you were waiting to call back, you looked out the window and enjoyed watching a jetliner draw it’s chalk line in the sky. And you had a few minutes to wonder and be fascinated at the possibilities of where all those people in that plane were going. I miss my busy signal…