The electronics section of the magazine rack at Walgreens on Wisconsin Avenue
In 1989, I would have been typing on a computer made by Apple. An Apple Macintosh. I just looked up a photo of this computer on Google. You know what Google is. In 1989 I wouldn’t have been able to use my personal computer to “look up” another personal computer. In 1989 if I wanted to see a photo of an Apple Macintosh I wouldn’t have known where to go. Maybe I would have gone to try to see one in person. Gone where? To “the computer lab,” a room inside the University library, which was not on the fourth floor. The fourth floor of the library, the top floor of the building, was the designated smoking area. The entire floor. There were no books, magazines, or newspapers because the smoke would have damaged all that paper. Just five or six aisles of long wooden tables, like thirty yards in length, and at intervals of a few yards, small lamps with green shades seemed to rise out of the blond wood’s smooth surface, and embedded ashtrays too, so many. The computer lab might have been in the business building. I know the name of the person after which the building was named but don’t really care to write it or see it written with these words. Let’s call it the business building. In 1989 I was an English major trying his hardest to separate himself from anything connected to the word “business.” This was naive and expressed my white cisgender middle-class male privilege. This room, like most of the classrooms in the business building, had very few or no windows so you just looked at the square screens. As I mentioned earlier, instead of looking for a photo of the Apple Macintosh, I would have just gone to the computer lab and used one. Or perhaps I could’ve gone to the drug store, a Walgreens on bustling Wisconsin Avenue, and perused their magazine rack for a magazine featuring “electronics.” Not a magazine featuring “technology” or “personal computing.” But I would have never wanted to use what very little cash I had on me to procure a magazine about “electronics.” I would have never wanted to look at a photo of the Apple Macintosh so much that I’d actually walk to the Walgreens. Likely I would have just imagined one, staying wherever I was at the moment, perhaps on my bean bag chair in my dormitory room or at a table in the Brew Bayou sipping my 16 ounce coffee and gazing out the window as I had this thought and began thinking about something else.
Waiting for the Call
Let’s say you’re anticipating, with big feelings, a telephone call. These big feelings—might it be joy, desire, alarm, dread, worry, usually it’s a mix of them interacting—create a sense of urgency, as in, This telephone call needs to happen now. Maybe somebody had gone missing and you knew that their calling you would put you at ease, like in Antonioni’s La Notte when Jeanne Moreau’s character Lidia wanders off from Giovanni’s book-launch reception and walks around the outskirts of Milan, overwhelmed by feelings of anticipatory grief over the imminent loss of their friend Tommasino. Giovanni, back home from the book launch and by himself, sits by their telephone, staring at it, willing it to ring. He picks up the handset and listens to make sure the line is still working. This was what you would do—you’d be just like Giovanni Pontano. You’d think the missing person was not calling because the line’s not working properly so you’d pick up the handset, bringing it to your ear and then upon hearing the functioning ringtone, drop it back in its cradle, knowing if the person tried to call you at that very moment, they would get a busy signal and who knew if they had the patience to hang up and call back. In your mind, you always imagined this missing person not having the patience thus never calling back. Barely beneath this sequence of actions was a feeling of self-diminishment, as if whoever was supposed to call you were doing so only out of obligation. The hundreds of times I checked to see if the telephone line was functioning—often in anticipation of receiving a call from a girl on whom I had a crush—the telephone ALWAYS WORKED. The idea that a telephone line might be cut or out of service was, by 1989, a dream from scary films like The Shining. You’d pick up the handset and hear the dial tone—a continuous, unbroken mid- to high-pitched pulse. It seemed to exist before and after you listened to it. You could depress and release, again and again, the hook switch that connected and disconnected you from the phone network, hearing the line cutting off then returning. You’d look at the telephone, the handset resting within its cradle, and you’d think, Why are you not calling? Why is the telephone not ringing? You might play games where you’d attempt to time the speaking of the word “Now” with the eventual, incoming ring. “Now,” you’d say. “Now.” “Now.” You’d let like five minutes pass. “Now.” Nothing. In 1989 sitting in one place for five minutes was common. You knew the telephone would only ring once you turned your attention away from the fact that the telephone was not ringing. When I went to Prague in 1994, five years after the Velvet Revolution, you could still encounter some of the antiquated Soviet infrastructure—in this context, very few working public payphones. In order to make calls, you’d buy from a little grocery store a “Phone Card,” which was a small plastic card the size of a credit card. You’d take a key or a coin and scratch off this coating revealing a very long sequence of numbers and letters that you typed in using the numerical keypad on the telephone, or if you got an operator, you could recite this sequence of numbers and letters to them, to make your call to people living in other countries on other continents. The problem was most of the payphones didn’t work. Somebody who’d been there awhile would break this news to newcomers till newcomers had been there awhile (becoming oldstayers) and they could be the ones to break the news to the new newcomers, sort of like a game we played in childhood called “Telephone.” You’d walk from payphone to payphone—no shortage of broken equipment—and none of them worked, the horror film coming to fruition, the proverbial line had been cut—holding the handset to your ear, hoping to hear that continuous string of sound but it was absent, which made you feel the loneliness that comes with the impossibility of connection.
You ended up finding the few pay phones that did work because they were always being used and had a line of people by them waiting although I might be making that up, the part about the line of people. I do remember the functioning payphones being used and I wasn’t comfortable waiting too close to the current user—let alone simply telling the person I was waiting—because I feared, often still do, asking for something I needed. That sound of the broken payphone was like a tiny cave into which your ear walked only to find a total sound void amid darkness, as if your hearing had been sucked out of your consciousness so that you existed fully alone, separate.
You’re out and about and you wanted or needed to talk to a friend—mind you, your sense of what it means to need is shaped by your white cisgender male middle-class privilege and you’re 25 years from framing it/feeling in that way, which is to say, it’s not actually a need but a want. And what does it mean, at this 1989 moment, to be “out and about”? You might be at a record shop or a convenience store or perhaps you’re just driving around because you’re bored and being away from your house where your parents were gives you the feeling of autonomy, more than you actually had—and you need-want your friend—likely to initiate or execute some scheme related to sex, drugs, and drinking; you’re a few years away from seeking out a friend to process a problem or express your feelings—so you try to find a payphone (no shortage of functioning payphones in America) or a telephone to borrow, perhaps at a bar or at a restaurant. A bar, like a cafe, was the kind of place you might hang out at awhile but unlike a cafe, the bar maintained a more casual atmosphere—alcohol, not caffeine—which helped to normalize the behavior of customers borrowing the telephone to make brief calls. In the case of actual emergencies, it was common practice for any human being with telephone service to let complete strangers use their telephone to make a call, but remember, this wasn’t an emergency—this was a need-want. You’d even consider returning home, driving miles out of your way, to use your own telephone, but even if you didn’t want to return home—you’d do anything not to return home where your parents were—you’d do this, just to have access to a telephone. And you’d probably not bother to make the call in the first place unless you believed your friend would be near a telephone they could access, say, at their home or at their place of work and if your friend was at their place of work, you had to take into consideration their access to a telephone and space-time to use that telephone and that depended on where they worked. Say they worked at a restaurant, bussing tables or in retail—stocking apparel or working out on the floor or at checkout—calling their place of work and asking to speak to them would get them in “minor” trouble, e.g., anything from an irritably expressed reprimand to a more direct admonishment with specific prohibition of taking “personal calls”—this is what we called them: personal calls—unless it was a family emergency and not your friend’s best friend wanting to collect their share of cash for a bag of dry, harsh (burned the throat) weed filled with seeds that popped when you smoked them. A safe route might be to drive (or take the bus) to where your friend worked and try to talk to them, sans their boss noticing. You’d visit your friends at their places of work if it was appropriate for them to receive visitors and if it wasn’t appropriate for them to receive visitors—say a daycare or a restaurant—then you might go anyway if you didn’t mind putting them at risk. Let’s say it was a “sit-down” restaurant, which is what we called restaurants that weren’t fast food restaurants, and your friend worked as a waiter or busser, then you might step inside and stand near the host station or around the bar—these were places where it was common to see people standing around—till they noticed your presence and if they worked in the kitchen you could hang out back near where people took smoke breaks and ask them if they could tell your friend to come out. And people took smoke breaks outside not because it was illegal to smoke inside restaurants—at this point most restaurants still maintained “non-smoking sections” and when you walked into them it felt as if you were swimming through an ashtray—but because they wanted to put more space between them and their work. If it was a fast food restaurant, you could just show up, order something (or not) and sit down in a booth and wait for your friend to join you on their break or if they didn’t have a break they could just grab a wash rag and volunteer to wipe down tables and talk to you as they wiped down the table at which you sat. If it was at a daycare you might just wait outside in front of one of the windows, in view of the “wobbler room” in which your friend worked, till they noticed you standing there on the sidewalk and that could take awhile.
Nobody’s home except the person knocking on the door
It was possible that I might show up at a friend’s house and that friend wouldn’t be home. And it wasn’t at all unusual that I wouldn’t check in with him first to make sure he was at home, which is to say, it was common practice to show up places, sans any advanced notice, at a friend’s house or apartment whenever. He was or was not expecting me—that didn’t matter in 1989. He didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know where he was. We had no way of figuring out where each other was or perhaps we just figured it out by imagining where each other might be. He might be depositing his paycheck at the bank. He might be filling up his car with gas. He might be hanging out with another person and then I could picture whom those people possibly were. Our imaginations kept us connected to each other. I’d wait on the porch of his house or on the back deck and if my friend’s parents showed up, they might tell me to come back later or invite me inside to wait in the basement or my friend’s bedroom or in the TV room although at that point we still referred to this room as “the family room,” still felt the need to buoy the illusion that this room was a relational space and not simply a space to gather around the TV to turn away from the violence, past and ongoing, wrought by whiteness and all the systems of oppression, the TV included, whiteness erected. Often I’d wait up to an hour or so. I’d sit on the porch or back porch and track my friend’s journey back to his house—stopping by another friend’s house to take a look at a used subwoofer or fuzzbuster he was selling—or maybe I’d think about sports or girls or remember something or I’d watch out into the distance for cars driving up the cul-de-sac with the hope it was a red Honda Civic or I would play a game where I counted the number of cars driving by, predicting that my friend’s car would be a certain number—the 10th say, or the 27th or I’d feel slightly self-conscious if one of my friend’s neighbors walked outside and noticed me waiting on the porch, like I somehow had to explain to them what I was doing on the porch of my friend’s house but I really didn’t because my skin was olive and Italian Americans with this skin complexion had nearly completed its assimilation into whiteness. Nobody was calling the cops on me. They knew me and knew what I was doing but I was a boy and felt as if I owed everybody an explanation. I was a white American boy tethered to an excess of inherited cultural shame that was, unbeknownst to me, the result of the TransAtlantic Chattel Slavery and the murderous foundations of the country in which I lived. I didn’t know I was contributing to the ongoing stealing of land from the Neshnabe Peoples but my body knew and it felt ashamed and we’d do anything to turn away from this shame, which included cranking up subwoofers and fantasizing we were rock stars. I would’ve had my Sony Walkman with me, an early version with the metal headband—imagine tightly bending a wire hanger over your head—and the sponge ear pads thinly covering the miniature prickly metal speakers. It was like wearing a brace around your head and the listening experience wasn’t private because everyone around you could easily hear whatever you listened to—U2, The Cars, Michael Jackson, Blondie, Prince?—and what if the batteries died? Why didn’t I consider why Michael Jackson lightened his skin color?
I might pace around the yard or run plays in my mind or if I had a football with me, I might pass the ball to myself while announcing the play either in my thoughts or aloud if I thought nobody was around. If my friend didn’t show up after an hour or so then I’d go elsewhere, and my friend and I remained not at all knowing what either of us were doing and where we were doing it.
We had these things called answering machines. They were manual tape recorders the size of a cigar box that played a recorded outgoing message to the caller asking them to leave a message that would, in turn, be recorded so the person being called, upon returning home, could hear a message from their caller. We did this because we didn’t like to miss things. We didn’t like to imagine the telephone ringing in our empty houses and apartments. Who might be calling? What if the human being from whom we most want to receive a telephone call was calling us on the telephone and what if this sought-after human decided to never, ever call us again? The loneliest of pictures often inspires technological advances yet when the pictures are false or when the pictures only tell a tiny part of a very large story of whiteness and the ongoing project of American imperial violence, we might not understand that we are just bringing one more thing into our lives that can bind us. The caller leaving the message would usually say the reason they were calling and include a telephone number at which they could be reached. People in 1989 still memorized telephone numbers or if memorizing wasn’t their thing, they wrote down telephone numbers in little books we called address books. In addition to an inventory of home addresses with telephone numbers, a person’s address book served as a diary and a scrapbook. One might tuck into specific places all sorts of ephemera and notes and pamphlets. One might place the laminated Virgin Mary prayer card from their friend’s funeral in the R section where their address and phone number could be found. When I handled my mom’s address book—say she asked me to grab it from the entryway table and bring it to her in the kitchen as she was on the phone whose curly telephone cord only reached so far—I had to hold it flatly and pressed shut to keep all these paper scraps from falling out. Both the outgoing message—I’m not home, please leave a message and a number I can reach you at—and the incoming message played through a speaker so that if we, in fact, were home, we could hear our voice then the voice of the caller seeking us. Upon returning home we would go to the answering machine, often situated right next to the telephone, to see if the red light was blinking, which meant we had messages to listen to. Its blink felt antagonizing to some of us and inviting to some of us. In 1989, when we called somebody, we expected them to actually answer the telephone, and when our own telephone rang, we answered the phone out of an automatic response. The telephone rang—we picked it up. The telephone had become another chain link in the larger fence in which we held ourselves captive. More often than not, the person calling us was the person to whom we didn’t want to speak. This has been the case for generations all over the Earth. Once the answering machine came onto the scene, we remembered that callers had no way of knowing whether we were actually home or not so we could allow our answering machine to pick up the incoming call and once the caller began to leave a message, we could decide if we wanted to talk to this caller person. On the very slight chance we wanted to, we could pick up the phone quickly and explain to the caller we’d been very far from the ringing telephone and hurried as fast as we could to get to it. Or if we didn’t want to speak to this person, we could let the call go to the answering machine and deal with it later.
This became a method we called “Screening Calls.” I knew which of my friends screened calls so when I called them and got their answering machine, instead of leaving a message, I would say something like, “Scott, pick up. It’s Jay,” as if to say, It’s me, the person you don’t mind taking calls from and not the person you don’t want to take calls from. I myself was a screener and the key to preserving this method as a form of self-protection was not to let those folks from whom I didn’t want to take calls know I was screening all incoming calls so I wouldn’t have to take their calls. Once I heard a voice on my machine saying something like, “I know you’re there, Jay. Pick up the phone,” I knew I’d been identified as somebody who screened calls, who, from their perspective, might or might not reject them—just the possibility could seem a form of rejection—and they were not about to let that happen while in my mind, the mind of the screener, another person’s voice, their words, felt intrusive and separated me from my ongoing direct encounter with everything that existed within (then beyond) my perceptual field. Yesterday, during a lecture, an artist around my age mentioned that she makes art only using the materials within her reach.
All images courtesy of Jay Ponteri.