Once I was in my local hardware store on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul, a place that was staffed by teens at the register and mustachioed white men in their fifties who patrolled the aisles asking you the moment you stepped foot in the place whether they could help you find something. If you said Yes, a dishwasher rack or Yes, metal shelf brackets, they took off walking with their chins down. This was a weeknight, and I was picking up thumb tacks or batteries—something pedestrian in hardware terms, having given up home ownership. At the cash register, a tall boy with red hair tallied my items. While he worked, his phone rang, and he, looking at the display, said with annoyance, “Ugh!” He sent the call to voicemail and said to me and my partner, “You ever get one of those persistent callers?”
We laughed, and took the line home and used it flexibly and repeatedly. At first it was something about ghosts, then it became a euphemism for a bowel movement. We always liked the kid’s candor and so very teen-like way he was galled by someone wanting to talk to him.
Now, lately, four years later, here, a phone has begun ringing. It is my neighbors’ below me. It’s a land line, you can tell. It has a loud ring—what I, born in 1972, would call a standard ring, and someone raised around cell phones might call an old-fashioned kind of ring. In the telephone’s heyday and when I was a boy, it was a clapper getting slammed between two metal bells by pulses of electricity that made this noise. Then for a while, in the late ’80s, it was a digitized simulacrum of that, with rounded edges, often in lower tones. That’s the tone that rang in my late teens, and now it sounds like a sultry siren, like a deep-throated songstress. I miss land lines now, for their reliability, for their willingness to ask something of you—just be here when you talk. Wherever I am.
My neighbor’s phone rings nightly, and in packs of four or six spurts. It sounds like a friendly call to me, not a desperate one, not an urgent one, not an angry one. That could only be my interpretation, couldn’t it? Because I know nothing about the caller—only his persistence. That makes me realize what a long time it has been since I was in that store. Four years. A lot can happen in four years. A lot can change. In the interval, even my own phone has surfed through a channel of varying chirps, squawks and tunes, only to have arrived back at the one Android calls “Digital Phone,” the one that sounds the most to me like a true ring, the one I had always hoped to hear.