PLAYING WITH THE TELEPHONE
Before direct dialing was possible and the operator asked "What country?" and I answered "Paraguay," there was usually a silence, followed by the dial tone.
The first time I spoke to a literary agent on the telephone I could tell she didn't think I knew my alphabet yet. If ever I should have a telephone conversation with a publisher, any resulting contract will probably limit my advance to a dollar a week pocket money.
It's my voice. It never grew up with me. I sound like an eight-year-old child.
Few strangers I meet by telephone will accord me the minimal courtesy of hearing me out before interrupting to ask what I want. The lordly weight of their adulthood is awesome; no wonder kids regard grownups with suspicion.
I love librarians, though. I can feel that their silence is uncritical while I make my piping requests. And they get right to work without gratuitous comment such as why am I playing with the telephone, or please ask my mommy to come to the phone. The third most popular adult tactic is to promise to call me back, which is still nicer than a sharp click in my ear.
Librarians have cheerfully verified for me that white mulberry trees in China come into leaf in the spring, that cougars sometimes eat carrion, that the Rufous-sided Towhee is a long-tailed thicket skulker. I learned all this while drinking a double espresso that would have truly stopped my growth at age eight.
A librarian friend once invited me to tell her third-grade study group a story. I had fun doing it, and I felt I had impressed the children with my acted-out rendition of the silkworm's life cycle. the kids squealed and laughed, though in all the wrong places. At the end of the period a little boy asked if I had a hard time learning new things in fourth grade.
I am treated as an equal also by government employees--the kind who work in Washington, D.C. One supervisor returned my long-distance call (not collect, as I had asked) and when she heard me, didn't say, "Is this a joke?" or even, righteously, "You have caused me to waste taxpayer money with your prank." Instead, she graciously gave me the information I needed--the number of passports issued in l981--chatted for ten minutes more, and ended by wishing me well with my school newspaper.
The sorts of people who question my age and mental competence are always in the private business sector. It has something to do with their time costing money (not mine).
I must have been insane the day I telephoned the Teamsters Union Local in my county. Even though I explained why I needed to know how long-haul truckers got paid--by the trip, by weight of cargo, by week or month--the woman on the other end continued to ask brusquely who I was working for.
"No one," I answered, "I mean I'm self-employed, or trying to be, you know how it is being a freelancer, a sale here and there, but mostly rejections--" She made me very nervous. I might have rattled on indefinitely had she not broken in.
"You mean you're with a newspaper?" she barked. She put down the receiver with a thunk and I heard her telling someone to quick get Jack to the phone.
I panicked. It was the one time I hung up first.
Recently I telephoned Gene Nelson, the disk jockey at a radio station in San Francisco. I had convinced myself I was performing a civic duty, but actually it was an uncontrollable need to talk to someone so that my stomach would settle into place. I told him we had just had an earthquake in the Oakland hills.
"Are you sure?" was his response.
"There was this rumble," I said, "and then the house shook, very hard."
"Okay," Gene said. "I'll check it out. 'Bye."
Fifteen minutes later the 10 A.M. newscaster reported there had been a magnitude 3.0 temblor and that residents (that's me!) in the Oakland hills had felt the jolt. Confirmed by the Berkeley seismology lab, no less.
I felt smug, gratified as if I had received a byline in the New York Times. It was only a little earthquake, but it was mine, I had reported it, and Gene Nelson had picked up my tip and relayed it to the newsroom. I didn't even mind that he had said, "Are you sure?" I'm used to that kind of reaction. Am I sure that I wish to cancel my subscription? That my car is on fire? That I am drowning in their swimming pool?
While working on a story about fishermen I telephoned a bait shop and asked the proprietor whether it was herring or anchovies that ran into San Pablo Bay in the fall. I gave him the routine explanation about my being a writer. He said, "Sure, and I'm the captain of a whaling fleet," and hung up.