NICE GIRL: Phone Home

It was a goddamned tragedy: My answering machine broke. I got home and I tried to play back my messages and the thing just beeped a brave little stuttered beep (its dying beep, if you will) and then the beeping stopped and the lights went out and it was over. I considered having my machine repaired, but my friends all told me that you don't repair sophisticated '80s equipment. You just trash it and buy new stuff. Needless to say, I was crestfallen. Look, this may seem trivial in the scheme of things to you, but you need to understand two things:1. I have an almost obsessive need to retrieve my messages several times a day. I need to be in touch.2. I had the perfect answering machine message on my old machine, now destroyed.I'm big on answering machine messages. I've made several over the years. Some have been a tad on the self-indulgent side (read: long). I've actually had friends begging me to shorten them. If you looped them all together, one after the other, it would probably be a double CD. There have been messages with me playing cello, messages where I do impressions (Edith Bunker and Ethel Merman are specialties). I've had guest voices and trivia contests and Name that Sound! I've had Bach and I've had Primus. I've had it all.I can never relate to those people who could actually use that generic, "Hi, I'm not home. Leave a message at the beep" crap. First off, telling someone to leave a message at the beep is sort of like writing "over" with a little arrow at the bottom of a letter when you want someone to turn the page. Duh.And a good answering machine message is a barometer of creativity, the ultimate non-conformity check. Rest assured, if you hear a conventional message on my machine it can only mean one thing: I'm looking for a new job.Anyway, the dearly departed message, the message now drifting in micro cassette purgatory was different. Because you see, it had Charo on it.If you don't know who Charo is, well, shame on you. I just don't think we can continue this relationship. Charo was this sort of bizarre creature that could only be created in the '70s -- Pamela Lee meets Rosie Perez meets Miss Piggy. I think she was supposed to be a sex symbol because she was always jiggling her breasts and saying, "Hoochy-coochy-koo." I remember being 10 and watching her on The Love Boat and thinking admiringly, "Wow, what a freak."The message had a bootleg duplication of her voice and I had manipulated it in such a way as to make it seem as though Charo was actually in my apartment, that we were having an actual conversation, that we were, possibly, tight.People would never call up and say, "How'd you do that? What's the trick?" They'd say, "Charo was over?" (Hey, I guess when The Love Boat is the peak of your career, it's not completely inconceivable that you might be available on an hourly basis to record answering machine messages.)My brand spanking new answering machine is digital, which means it doesn't use microcassettes, so my Charo tape is gone forever. This is probably for the best. Sometimes it's good to make a clean break.Not that I have any intention of making a break with my habit of retrieving my messages 15 times a day. What can I say? An answering machine signifies hope. And hope springs eternal. It could be Ed McMahon telling me I've finally won big. It could be some Hollywood agent who spotted me at the Sip 'n Bite. It could be Harper's magazine offering me that long-overdue writing contract.Of course, usually I have no messages. This was bad enough with my old machine. It would just beep fondly in my ear. But my digital machine actually talks to me. In a sort of twisted, Twin Peaks-like, computer-generated voice: "You Have No New Messages -- And Stop Calling, Dammit! It's Getting Pathetic."I admit it: when I'm home, I'm one of those people who screens her calls. This is why I do it. Let's just say you're watching a really embarrassing television show that you're totally getting into. Let's just say, for argument's sake, it's Melrose. And then let's just say that your long-lost friend that you haven spoken to in, like, 7 years calls out of the blue. You've got all this catching up to do. You can't say, "Wow, it's so wonderful that you used the alumni directory to track me down and cross referenced that with a Motor Vehicle Administration search and called every M. Weiss in the state of Maryland, but can we keep this brief? Michael is contemplating an affair with one of his red-headed ex-wives, and I need to know which one."For some reason, you feel guilty having the person ramble on cheerfully while you're staring at the machine (why that is, I have no idea: you never feel guilty when you play back your messages, only when you witness them live). But it's worth it. And then you can call them back at your convenience. (Note: Don't call at 9 o'clock exactly, or they might get suspicious. I find that 9:07 is the perfect time.)It's weird. The answering machine has been invented in my lifetime. Heck, it came around when I was a teenager. But I truly can't live without it. I am a slave to it. So yo, Charo, if you're out there, give me a buzz. We can work something out. I'm absolutely sure of it.

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