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CRITIC AT LARGE

Teaching An Old Crank New Tricks

February 21, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

As callers to our newspaper will be aware, The Times has a new telephone system and a new set of numbers. Each of our desks now holds a new phone instrument that is smaller than an attache case but larger than a lunch bucket and that will, I have the feeling, do everything but make coffee or inspect our teeth for caries.

The instruments arrived with long-form and short-form courses of instruction, one the length of a round-the-world cruise brochure and the other a softcover edition of "The Accidental Tourist."

The text is couched in a prose so simple and straightforward that a child can understand it, although possibly no one above the age of 12.

The closet Edisons and Marconis among us have evidently wrestled the instrument to the carpet and become its master, but I have spent a week listening, with increasing hypertension, to that recorded voice, familiar from a million smug announcements that I have reached a disconnected number or that I had best dial my personal identification code again if I hope to complete the call.

The voice now tells me that I have sinned against the instructions, but not how. That voice! That ethereal singsong, everlastingly polite, entirely undeflectable, maddeningly unresponsive voice. I suppose anything more personal would be quickly, equally maddening in its repetitiousness, but this week it would have been maybe a little bit less exasperating to have a choir of voices--a Gary Owens, a Lily Tomlin, a Rich Little running amok, each chiding me for a different failure.

My troubles begin with the identifying of those two extra touch-tone buttons as the star and pound signs. The star is not a star, it's an asterisk, and whatever the pound sign is, it is not given in the dictionary as a pound sign.

This is a minor matter of acclimation, but it confirms the dark suspicion--born as I grappled some years ago with the childishly simple instructions for operating a word processor--that all such guidance is written in a kind of fraternal cipher, to be understood only by the previously initiated, who already know the handshake and the wink.

I am not mechanically minded and even less electronically minded. The only unadulterated mechanical triumph of my life is that I took apart and reassembled a New Departure bicycle brake when I was 12. I still haven't a clue how it worked, but it did, before and after.

It has all been downhill from there, and I keep remembering S. J. Perelman's piece, "Insert Flap and Throw Away." I also keep remembering simpler, kinder telephones I have known.

In my youth there was a crank phone at a family cottage. The phone, which I could barely reach even when standing on a chair, was an anachronism even then but it was an item of exquisite fascination, a party line on which all manner of interesting voices could be heard. There was an elaborate list of ringings by which to signal the operator and the other parties on the line. It rang all the time.

"Central"--living, breathing, around-the-clock operators--hung on in Hammondsport, N. Y., until the system finally went dial after World War II. The telephone office was upstairs over Frisk's Barber Shop and you could go in and watch the Misses Bailey or Nan Wright push and pull the plugs.

They were an early-day, underpaid (I'm sure) combination of answering service, news bureau and social column. I recall more than once asking for 41-R, my grandmother's number, and having Miss Wright or Laura Bailey (who doubled as the town's librarian) say, "Why, Charles, your grandmother went to Elmira to see Dr. Granner (her chiropodist) this afternoon." Of course; it would have slipped my mind.

In emergencies, the operators could track down the town doctors in two minutes flat, even if they were on house calls in the distant hills.

The past never seemed more distant than the first time I went back to Hammondsport and found that the telephone office was a locked building full of clicking noises and no flesh and blood.

But change is immutable and progress is wonderful if it doesn't kill you first. By summer, possibly, I hope to figure how to record a cheery greeting into the command module on my desk. It will take messages while I am away from my desk--probably in search of the simple life, minus baffling instructions and recorded voices.

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