Thursday, January 13, 2005

Answering Machines

Most people own one, but most people hate it when other people use theirs. What is it? The dreaded answering machine.

It’s the device that created the modern phenomenon of “phone tag,” when you call someone and leave a message on their machine but then, when they call you back, you’re not home, so they leave a message on yours. It sometimes goes on like that for days.

And, although they are not as ubiquitous as they once were, those “amusing” messages people leave can be a little annoying. A few years ago, a big seller on TV commercials was the cassette tape that came with several humorous voice characterizations. But really, when all you want to do is leave a message, you really don’t feel like being entertained by lame impressions.

But answering machines do serve a very useful function, which is why most people have one of the contraptions. Americans truly do have a love-hate relationship with their telephone answering machine.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Back in the 1970s, almost nobody had an answering machine. Even most businesses didn’t have one, except the movie theaters.

I was probably one of the first individuals to own one. And when I bought my first one, it was against the telephone company’s rules to install one, making them virtually useless unless you broke the rules.

Of course, I had no qualms about breaking telephone company rules back then and I slept perfectly well after having broken them. I wired my new high-tech gadget directly into the phone line in my apartment and it worked wonderfully. (The telephone installer actually showed me how to wire it – unofficially.)

I tried going the “legal” route. I called the phone company to find out about installing one on my phone line. They actually sent a couple of representatives out to my house to discuss the ins and outs of telephone answering machines and to show me a line of products. But the monthly charge for their use was in the hundreds of dollars.

So I elected to buy my own, for a one-time cost of about $150 at L. S. Ayres. It was their cheapest model and consisted of a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder. Radio Shack had a cheaper model, but it was junk.

Eventually, the phone company standardized their jacks and plugs and started allowing people to connect their own equipment to the phone lines. Answering machines became more readily available. More and more people started buying them. You can buy one today for about $25 or less with far more features than my old reel-to-reel model. Most don’t even use tape anymore, but record your voice electronically.

The modern counterpart of the answering machine is voice mail. It’s really the same thing, except you don’t have to buy the equipment. Just pay a small monthly fee and the telephone company keeps track of your messages for you.

I tried voice mail, but decided that having an answering machine met my needs more economically. But there are no cute messages on mine, just the standard greeting. I don’t even bother telling people to wait for the beep anymore, because answering machines are so common, there’s no one out there who doesn’t know what to do when they get one on the other end of the line.

“Hello. This is me. Please leave a message.” Beep!

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