Answering Machine Blues

©1999 by Spider Johnson
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Some folks just seem to invite practical jokes. Chuck ("Ghost On 15th Street") is one such person, and this next one just keeps coming back--and it wasn't intended to be one in the beginning.

In 1979, my wife and I moved back to my hometown for a brief time and began a new business. Since we were operating out of our home and were gone during the day, I bought a telephone answering machine, fairly new technology at the time, and was the first among my friends to have one. It was useful for business, to be sure, but it got its real workout from my friends who delighted in leaving long-winded, mostly banal and occasionally humorous, messages. Chuck, an erudite and eloquent man, left the most colorful ones.

Chuck is a man with many talents and identities. His conservative, successful, just-the-facts corporate identity is how the business community knows him. His carousing, nightlife identity is yet another, quite different identity. As a thespian in local community theater, he wears many identities. And among his long-time friends, his irreverent, gourmet, host-with-the-most identity is the one we have come to love and admire. My answering machine accurately chronicled each of these identities over a period of several years. Of course, I saved all the tapes, thinking that they might come in handy some day. They did.

Years later, after we had left my hometown and moved to a bigger city, I ran across those tapes in a stored box and, as I worked alone in my studio, I listened to them in chronological order. What a flood of memories!--clients and friends I had forgotten about, hilarious and tragic events, a compilation of the daily details that enrich a life but later dissolve into the dim generalities of old memories. And standing out throughout all those voices was Chuck in his many guises.

So, with the Christmas holidays approaching and our annual return to our hometown, I decided to record excerpts of those tapes into a tribute to my friend Chuck. Little did I suspect that he might not appreciate being reminded of how he actually was. It's sort of like the surprise people have when they first hear their own voice on tape, but even moreso because of the circumstances these particular recordings related. I'll describe one.

Chuck invited my wife and me over for one of his delectible dinners one evening. After a delightful time, we got up to leave and Chuck, the ever gracious host, followed us to our car and waved us off. When we got home, there was a lenghty tirade from him on our answering machine. When we left, I was having trouble opening his heavy glass storm door because the latch was always stiff--or locked--and I didn't want to force it, perhaps break it, and risk his wrath, so I just pushed in the little spring-catch on the door jamb, which allowed the door to open without having to depress that troublesome lever handle. It turns out that the lever was indeed locked, so when Chuck returned to his door, he was locked out and had to break in to get back inside his own home. The ensuing tantrum, recorded in minute detail, was a work of invective art. So much so, that I placed it first on the Christmas tape collection and demanded that he play it when I gave him the gift. As it played, his expression evolved ever less-cheerful, to put it mildly. He particularly recoiled when it got to the messages he left when not quite sober. My laughing at his increasing seriousness didn't help, either.

I wonder if he still has that tape.