DIALING FOR DOLORS

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In the age of miscommunication, here's one guy who really misses communication

TODAY, "MOUTH TO MOUTH" IS USED FOR resuscitation. Once upon a time it was used for communication. Remember when you could speak person to person, exchange ideas, have an argument, sell a concept, make a lunch date or even tell a joke?

How do you do that today? You call to make an appointment and you get a voicemail message that directs you to a personal secretary's direct phone line. You call that direct line and get the secretary's voicemail, which directs you to another direct line-the receptionist's. If the receptionist is there, it's only because you've reached a temp who hasn't yet learned how to avoid answering the phone. In any event, the receptionist is guaranteed to have never heard of the person you're trying to reach.

The comedian Shelley Berman used to do a routine based on his inability to reach his doctor. For months, whenever he called he got the doctor's answering machine. Then one day the doctor himself actually answered the phone-and Berman was so rattled by this suspicious living presence he refused to relate his aches and pains to this strange human voice.

In all the hype about the superhighway of communication, they never talked about eliminating the human element. Machines don't make a deal, sign a contract, write a book or make a commercial-people do. And when it comes to dealing with people, I don't want to be anonymous, I want my face and voice to be recognized.

We have the communications technology to get to anyone's desk in the world-so why is no one ever there? Has everyone become a recluse, hiding behind the recorded message? Is everybody so busy and overworked that answering the phone will throw off their schedule for discovering the cure for cancer? Has everyone joined the federal witness protection program?

Years ago, the phone company alerted us to the wonderful future of the videophone-we would be able to see each other as we spoke. Ha! If it were available today, we'd all be looking at smiling cardboard cutouts while we listened to recorded messages. How many times have you called a company and gotten a message with a menu of eight numbers to pick from so you could hear another message? My conclusion is there aren't any people out there, and the company is going out of business. Certainly, they don't want any of my business.

I'm told that the phone company is working on a new menu of options for voicemail: press 1 and the message will self-destruct in 30 minutes; press 2 and the message will self-destruct in four hours; press 3 and the message can never be erased unless the caller does it. Option 3 is the only practical method for dealing with these phone recluses. Brown bears are said to hibernate for six months by reducing their metabolism and living off their fat. Compared to today's voicemail phantoms, those bears are amateurs when it comes to hiding out.

There's an old story about this very sharp elderly lady in the Bronx. Her phone rings, she picks it up and says, "Hello?" And she hears a breathy guy saying, "I know what you want, lady, and I'm going to give it to you." And she very cooly replies, "You know all that from just, 'Hello'?"

Then there's the one about the actor who's been out of work. He rushes into the house yelling, "I got the part!" His wife looks at him and says, "Which part?" He says, "the part of the Jewish husband." She says, "You dummy! Couldn't you get a speaking part?"

The future obviously is going to be machines talking to machines, and if that means everyone is at the beach having fun, that's OK with me. I'm sure I can find a dolphin who wants to talk.u

Barney Melsky is a rep at 93rd St. Productions in New York, where he answers his own phone.

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