Wednesday, August 26, 2015

We know you’re home…pick up

Anyone who keeps up with the news—other than on pay TV—has probably heard that the pay-TV industry is losing customers in droves. How many droves exactly, no one will admit. But in the past six months, cable and satellite have lost 887,000 customers. Of course, say the pundits, we’ve gone on our laptops and tablets and phones (oh, my!) to watch programming there instead.

I, though, say they’re wrong. Elena and I have a source of programming that’s full of intrigue, deception and even suspense. And it’s as accessible as that most primitive of devices, our landline telephone.

Yes, it’s the Caller-ID box.

Around since the ’80s, Caller ID wasn’t invented to be a source of merriment. Earlier Caller-ID boxes showed only a phone number, usually fake, and you’d never have given a thought to sitting down with some fresh popcorn. But today’s ordinary Caller-ID boxes display a second line—for text—that keeps us at the edge of our seats. A few examples, with our responses, from calls that come in:

“UNAVAILABLE”: What a coincidence! So are we.
“Free VtRSRCH”: Oh, yes, we always pick up the phone when the caller’s name is gibberish. Just tack on the word “free."
“PRIVATE CALL”: My mother’s maiden name was Call, but last I checked, no one from her side of the family is in the Army.

Of course, we also get the official-sounding ones:

“Loan Department”: All loans made on this planet originate from the same very wealthy one-percenter, boss of a single department. Get him!
“Bank Card Services”: Since you sound so legitimate, hold on while I get together all my credit-card numbers to give you.
“Power Center”: I want to work there.

And then we get the scaremongers:

“Alert Srvc”: With our frantic routines, we’re always on the lookout for the next chance to raise our blood pressure.
“Help Center”: Yes, tell me where I left my hammer.
“Your Appointment”: One of us, at any given time, must have some appointment scheduled with some doctor. So this must be genuine.
“URGENT”: Of course, whenever I call someone in an emergency, my name on the phone number’s account always changes to “Urgent.” Would the caller’s name, in non-emergency situations, be “Trivial”?

And what about when the Caller-ID box merely displays the name of a state? With 50,000 Yankee fans chanting “Who’s your Daddy?” to then-Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez in 2004, we who were listening could tell what they were saying. But sometimes the box displays “Connecticut,” “Vermont” or (even worse) “California.” I’m imagining that all residents of that state—almost 39 million people, in the case of California—are dropping what they’re doing and gathering around a single telephone to call us and speak in unison.

It could be worse. What if China called? But if it were Mexico calling, we’d pick up. Other than the language barrier, we’d be listening to only a few dozen people; the rest seem to be elsewhere.

Given government’s incessant efforts to make our lives easier, I’m waiting for the next generation of Caller-ID boxes. Telemarketers will be required to stop giving phony names and numbers and start stating their true intentions. Landline customers, all ten of us, will need to buy new boxes with screens the size of an iPad’s. One sample message, displayed as the phone is ringing: “Marketing survey, for products you’d never buy in a million years, whose polltaker says takes only three minutes but will actually take 20…if you’re lucky.”

I’m going to hold out for the boxes with digital recording.


  1. This is so true, Ed. And yes, we are one of the ten you mentioned that still has a landline. From your 4th cousin in SD

    1. Thank you, Janet! I just saw your comment. We're holding out with a landline, too, but we're a vanishing breed!