Bad Call: Meditations on the Pocket Dial


First Person


Still from the film Brief Encounter (1945).

My acquaintances rarely call me, but their pockets and purses ring me up faithfully. So it is for the Abigails and Aarons, the Abdullahs and Aaliyahs, A. A. and AAA—and one mustn’t forget the Yaschas and Yankels, the Xenas and Zinos. We alphabetical extremists, we who crown and conclude your contact lists: we aren’t a call away so much as a few unintended nudges. Perhaps your finger, seeking lipstick, flicks the “Contacts” key, and your phone highlights the earliest entry—dear old Abelard!—and your knuckle strikes “Call.” Perhaps, in the thick of all that accidental action, your pinky pokes the “Up” button, taking you to the list’s final entry: then it’s cousin Zabrina you’ve piped into your life.

Not to alarm you; not to suggest that, at this very minute, an army of Abners and Zilpahs are listening to their cell phones with unseemly interest, picking up on secrets you had never meant to share. No, it’s far more likely we’re hearing whish-whoosh, whish-whoosh: the song of your stride.

Is there anything quite like the pocket dial? Does any other form of social intercourse invite us—actually, mandate us—to spy on our acquaintances?

Mandate? you ask. Yes, mandate, at least for a few moments. “Hello?” we say, and listen. “Hello?” we say again. And hear the background music of our friends’ lives: the slamming doors, the roaring traffic, the whish and the whoosh. Where is he walking? we wonder. Why is she shouting? And we never find out. Unless, of course, we keep listening.

Which I don’t. Hardly ever. Only under duress. When, for instance, years ago, the enigmatic and taciturn youth I had recently started dating called me while he was catching up with his mom. This isn’t invasion, I told myself guiltily, as I noted his thoughtful inquiries and nodded with approval. This is research. This is good for the team.

But in some ways accidental calls are good for no one. For what happens when, fingers trembling, we lift the receiver to our ears, clear our throats, declare our excited greetings, and then hear yet another rendition of the Pocket Polka? Emotionally healthier souls might feel merely annoyed. But I feel disappointed, even vaguely insulted. Whereas before we were going happily about our lives, not even thinking that long-lost Erica might be remembering us, planning what she might tell us, reaching for her phone—now we’re pondering how long-lost Erica, no matter what else she’s doing, is certainly not thinking about us, not planning what she might tell us, not reaching for her phone. To be pocket-dialed is to be un-called.

So too with the accidental text message. Just after college, while I was living in an isolated French town, my link to the world was a tiny Nokia phone with the approximate shape and utility of an eraser. I was too cheap to buy more than ten minutes of time on it per month, and never sent texts (or textos, as the French charmingly call them) because I had no one to send them to.

But that’s not to say I didn’t receive textos—misdirected textos, or as I came to think of them, misdirextos. Misdirextos that referred to friends I did not know, to outings I would not enjoy, to bars I would never see offering beers I would never sip. My eraser tended to light up just when I felt particularly lonely, and—due to some cruel technological quirk—it tended to receive each misdirexto multiple times. One night I learned from an acquaintance named Jen that we would all be eating at 45 Allées François Verdiers because her electricity was out; I should come at 8 P.M. She delivered this news sixteen times. Twice she promised me more information when she had it, and sent me kisses. Bisous, Jen, I thought, staring out my window at the darkening hills.

* * *
Sometimes, in the stiller moments of my dotage, I reminisce about the rotary phone I used as a child. It imposed particular rhythms on the act of calling: seven times you placed a finger in the wheel; seven times you traced a circle in the air. Then you heard a voice. The process felt vaguely mystical, like using an Ouija board. Once we’d replaced that phone with a touch-tone model, I no longer drew circles: I punched out lines and squares and triangles. I no longer associated my friends with the groan of the turning wheel—the 9 ever so slightly longer than the 8; the 1 just a blip, a cymbal crash. Instead, I heard the tinny tunes of the keypad. Now, as in a Wagner opera, an individualized musical theme preceded the voice of each friend.

These old modes of calling were quirky, beautiful, and memorable (I can still sing the sequence of pitches that would conjure the voice of my best friend, circa 1996). Above all, they were complicated. Calling now is easy. Too easy: we have reached the point when the phone does the calling for you, whether you want it to or not.

Despite my griping, however, I’ve recently come to find pocket dials fascinating—and even fun. For inadvertent calls blend the social and the private as few other phenomena do. They’re a byproduct of our ultraconnected world, where everyone carries multiple gizmos capable of contacting everyone else’s gizmos. And yet, in a strange way, they let us unplug. These days, when people’s pockets ring me up, I find myself listening for minutes on end—not when I can overhear conversation, but when I can’t. In my acquaintances’ pockets and pocketbooks I get a break, a snatch of calm, a moment when nothing is demanded of me. I listen to the back and forth of fabric, the inexplicable burst of laughter, the car horn blasting on the street I cannot see. This is freedom from friendliness, from conversational responsibility, from associating with the world. This, at last, is solitude.

But an interestingly communal solitude. People may not know they’re calling me, but the fact of their call testifies to our relationships, and to the ways in which our networks can buzz to life at any moment: perhaps we run into a friend on the street; perhaps a hat in a window display reminds us of a favorite aunt. Last week a dear friend’s pocketbook-called me, and I listened appreciatively to the announcer on the BART while she scooted under San Francisco. I’m in her pocketbook, I thought. Isn’t it wonderful? And I remembered a comment William Maxwell once made about his beloved, and recently departed, Elizabeth Bowen. “Most of all I wish I could have kept her in my pocket,” he wrote Eudora Welty in 1973. “In the pocket of my plaid bathrobe, where I once kept a kitten.”

“The doors are closing,” the BART announcer boomed. “Please stand clear of the doors.” And the train whined, and the car rattled—swish-swoosh! swish-swoosh!—and in the rhythm of the rails, I sensed an underlying steadiness to our experience, no matter how plagued by accident and strangeness. And I listened until I was cut off.

Abigail Deutsch is a writer in New York. Her reviews and essays appear in the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, and other publications.