We Become That With Which We Interconnect
Once we get past the fun and games, easy pornography, and endless garage sales, the reality of the internet will be that it interconnects us in ways we wish it wouldn’t, and there just won’t be any turning back.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello, Mr. Raskin?"
"No, I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number."
"Is this 555-6794?"
"Yes, but there’s no Mr. Raskin here."
The caller hung up. Moments later, the phone rang again. "Hello?" I said.
"No, you still have the wrong number. That is, you’re getting the number you dialed, but it’s not Mr. Raskin’s."
"Well, where is Mr. Raskin?"
"I have no idea. I have no idea where he is or who he is. Sorry."
"I need to get ahold of him."
"And I can’t help you."
Irritably, the caller hung up. Moments later, the phone rang again. "Hello?" I said.
There was no response, just a long silence, some breathing, someone thinking about saying something, and then a resounding click followed by the dial tone.
I had moved into a new house, had to get a new phone number (which came with a new e-mail address and internet connection), and immediately I was fielding calls for someone I’d never met. Modern technology was setting in motion a chain of events that would result in the collision between my life and Bernard Raskin’s.
"Hello, Mr. Raskin, this is Dr. Cohen -- we’re gonna need to run some more tests, so I’m gonna need to see you in my office first thing Monday morning. Nine o’clock? Please be there -- it’s important. Oh, and don’t eat solid food for twenty-four hours before, and don’t drink anything -- even water -- after midnight the night before. Thank you."
My telephone company had provided me with electronic voice mail which automatically answers my phone and takes messages when I am out or on the line. In my voice, you will hear: "You’ve reached 555-6794, please leave a message at the beep." Later, I retrieve these messages by calling in to the phone company’s computer/voice mail server; or, even more magically, I can get the message in e-mail text on my Palm Pilot when I am away from home; or, truly spectacularly, I can have my home or laptop computers "speak" the message to me in a synthetic (usually operatic) voice of my choosing.
I got Dr. Cohen’s message on a Friday. It sounded important, but I didn’t know either Mr. Raskin or Dr. Cohen, so I had little idea how to contact them. No matter where you are, on-line white and yellow pages only list people you don’t want to find and no one old enough to matter; while hard copy telephone directories in L.A. list enough Raskins and Cohens to make Smith forget all about Jones. Accordingly, I just put the whole Raskin matter out of my mind as equally thankless and impossible. Mr. Raskin, whoever he was, had had plenty of time to advise his doctors and everyone else of his new phone number before his old number was re-activated and assigned to me. If the callers couldn’t tell that my voice on the answering message was different from Raskin’s, then they were the ones to blame, not me.
A WEEK LATER
"Mr. Raskin, this is Dr. Cohen’s office -- we have the colonoscopy results. (Long pause) We’re gonna need to get you into surgery right away. Please call us back immediately. Thank you."
All during the week, while I was alternately unpacking and trying to work, the phone kept ringing with all sorts of calls for Mr. Raskin. Young women, old women, young men, old men, all of whom acted like I was lying when I told them they had the wrong number. Worse, when I tried to ask them if they had an alternate number for Raskin, you’d’ve thought I was Gestapo.
Oddly, the callers’ suspicion of me began to make me feel guilty, and with guilt came a sense of responsibility. Suddenly, I started to feel obligated to this man I never met but now knew too damn much about. Suddenly, I became determined to pass along the doctor’s frightening message to Raskin, even while I most certainly was not about to tell anyone other than Raskin himself.
Being a writer of mysteries, I determined to apply a little deductive reasoning. First, obviously Dr. Cohen had gotten ahold of Raskin and gotten him in for tests the previous Monday, after all. Therefore, either Dr. Cohen had Raskin’s new number somewhere, or else Raskin made a habit of checking in with his doctor sua sponte. There was therefore every likelihood that the surgery message would get to Raskin some time.
But maybe not in time. Maybe I was all that stood between Bernard Raskin and fatal metastasis. The immense gravity of the private information I now possessed swallowed me up as light into a black hole -- a burden that could not be escaped but might well be shouldered, where a person becomes that for which he is responsible.
"He who saves one life saves all the world entire." Okay, so maybe I wasn’t Schindler, at least I’d have a story to tell my friends over Reuben sandwiches at Jerry’s Deli.
Leaving no search engine unturned, deputizing a p.i. hacker pal to cull information in ways I needed not to know, I worked my way about halfway through the resultant list of budding "Dr. Cohens", talking to the latest in the series of "nurse/receptionists":
"Hello, do you have a patient named ‘Bernard Raskin’?"
"Sorry, we can’t give out that sort of information -- just who are you?"
"I’m the guy who inherited his phone line."
"You mean, by will or something?"
Frustrated, ready to give up, I hung up. And then the phone rang -- incredibly, the office of the relevant Dr. Cohen was on the line:
"Mr. Raskin, this is Dr. Cohen’s office --"
"Oh, thank God!"
"We’d like to get you in for surgery --"
"Yes, I know all about that, but I’m not Mr. Raskin."
"Then how do you know all about it?"
"Because you left the message."
"You really shouldn’t be listening in on Mr. Raskin’s messages."
"This is not Mr. Raskin’s phone number -- not anymore."
"Well, what is that number?"
"I have no idea."
"I’ll get the Doctor."
"Fine." A massive stone of guilt had been removed. I suddenly felt uncrippled.
The Doctor came on the line. "Hello, Mr. Raskin?"
"I’m Brian Lane. I have Mr. Raskin’s old phone number. I don’t know his new phone number. I have no idea how to get ahold of him. You must have another number for him."
"I see." said the Doctor.
"Yes or no -- do you have a number for Raskin or not?" I demanded.
"I’ll have to ask my nurse/receptionist." said the Doctor. "Thank you for your time." And he hung up.
HE HUNG UP!
"Thank you for your time." Not "thank you for your help and concern." Not "thank you for being responsible and selfless." Not "thank you for interceding when most people wouldn’t get involved." In fact, the damn Doctor wasn’t thankful at all, he was just annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get ahold of Raskin. Probably he wasn’t buzzing his nurse/receptionist now, probably he was calling his malpractice carrier. Better to be ready in case old Raskin croaked because the Doctor had the wrong phone number.
THE NEXT TUESDAY
"You’ve reached 555-6794," said my answering message, "please leave a message at the beep."
"Berrrrrrnie," Blanche duBois purred gently with a lot of tongue -- you could truly hear the lipstick suck, "It’s me, baby. I missed you today, sugarpie. My rumper-bumpers were all warm and damp and snuggly, and I just had to wrassle with my pillow and pretend it was you, y’know? Well, I hope everything’s allright with you -- I really do. Now I’ve got you down again for the first Tuesday next month, but if something comes up sooner -- (giggle, cigarette drag) -- then you let me know and I’ll do my best to work you in. Bye now, hush puppy. See you next month -- I’ll be countin’ on it."
This is not a joke. I mean, it’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Bernie Raskin apparently had a hooker who was straight out of Central Casting. I wondered if she charged him for missed appointments. I wondered if she told him she was an actress, a make-up artist, a legal secretary studying to be a make-up artist, or if she just told him she was a woman who liked sex and shiny, expensive baubles. I wondered what she’d say about his new surgical scar the next time she saw him. Maybe she’d rub vitamin E oil into it for him. Maybe she’d pout her lips and act all sad. Maybe she’d call it a "boo-boo". In fact, I was sure she’d call it a "boo-boo". And I was sure she told Bernie she liked sex. Colon cancer or not, he was the man she needed to satisfy her, she’d tell him. Bernie would respond to that.
Maybe he’d even name her as beneficiary of his life insurance.
And then she’d spray a little more jasmine syrup perfume around the room to kill Bernie’s smell. Colon cancer is not pretty on the nose.
Suddenly, I found myself really hoping Blanche would call back sometime when I answered the phone directly. Short of that, she could at least leave her pager number, wouldn’t you think? My appendectomy scar started to itch.
An incoming message left on my voice mail.
"Mr. Raskin, this is the Jules Stein Eye Institute. We’ve reviewed your charts and we need you in for some tests to determine treatment, but we’re sorry to tell you that we confirm your Doctor’s diagnosis as to central retinal vein occlusion. Please call us at your earliest convenience."
Yeah, Bernie’ll call back allright, that is if the poor bastard can even see the numbers on the phone anymore. He was going to have to get one of those phones with the big buttons like blocks. Apparently Bernie was now going blind. Maybe from all the self-abuse since he couldn’t make it over to Blanche’s after the colon surgery.
How in the world could anyone call voice mail and leave a message that you’re going blind?
I was livid.
And then it occurred to me that now I understood why Bernie hadn’t given anyone his new phone number -- he didn’t want any of these people to get through to him. The guys was falling apart at the seams, and he knew without being told, and he hardly needed outsiders to remind him of it.
"Hello?" I said.
"Mr. Raskin, please." said an elderly lady. "Say it’s Esther."
"Esther, I get a lot of calls for Mr. Raskin -- tell me what he’s like, if you don’t mind my asking."
"He’s a very nice man. But who’re you?"
"It doesn’t matter. I’m just sorry to tell you this isn’t Mr. Raskin’s number anymore."
"Oh, so I see. Well, actually I haven’t seen him in some time. He used to be a very nice man."
"Who knows! We all grow old."
"And we get less nice?"
"Maybe it’s just the hemorrhoids. Or maybe not." Esther burst into laughter. For some reason, I decided that Esther was Bernie’s ex-wife.
"You take care now, Esther."
"You, too, whoever you are."
Esther hung up. She didn’t call back, and that made me feel trusted.
LAST DAY -- THE FIRST TUESDAY OF THE MONTH
An incoming message left on my voice mail.
"Bernie," it was Blanche, but the duBois was gone, no accent at all -- the lipstick had left her lips and stuck to the rim of a bourbon glass, and the rumper-bumpers were covered up and put away -- "this is twice now you’ve stood me up. (Sip, swallow; cigarette drag) I’m booking out your slot to someone else. You don’t call, you don’t come, and I got rent to pay. You let me know if you want to see me, and I’ll decide what I want to do about it. I really think you ought to pay me for the missed appointments first. Fair is fair. Don’cha think?" Click.
We now live in a world where we have invented things -- from medical diagnostics and treatment to high-speed communications -- that we neither know how to use nor, worse, have a real need for. Do I want to know I have cancer when there’s no cure? Do I really want access to an information superhighway that contains more data than I could ever use contained in a chaos that makes each and every website no more nor less valuable than each and every other one? Was not the evolution of knowledge and civilization predicated on discernment -- scientifically and artistically -- rather than volume? To have sudden access to all knowledge is perhaps to not know anything at all. The medium has indeed become the message because the process and technology of acquiring information has outstripped and outglamorized the insight and wisdom derived from the knowledge itself. People don’t know things anymore, they just know they can be looked up; and they’ve forgotten that you can’t find answers unless you first know enough to ask the right questions. Ask your favorite search engine to find "intellectual curiosity", and then flee fast from the meltdown.
But if modern hi-tech is gently and ineluctably separating us from our ability to think, it is at the same time bringing us together and out of individual isolation in ways unexpected and maybe or maybe not regrettable.
Technology brought me together with, if not the man, then at least the imprint of Bernard Raskin. And it made me realize that there aren’t millions of different stories in the naked city -- they’re all the same story. The difference is not so much who we are as whom we touch, and, even though I could do nothing to cure his cancer, save his eyesight, assuage his hooker, or contribute to his life, Bernard Raskin touched me. So, here and now, as I grant Bernie his momentary immortality and say a personal thanks, I am also mindful that, as a society, we will likely bit and byte off more than we can chew, losing our humanity and our humanness in the process.
About the author:
Brian Alan Lane, MFA, JD, novelist, nonfiction writer, media commentator, and screenwriter, whose bestselling creative nonfiction crime book, "Cat and Mouse", was described by The Boston Book Review as "a masterpiece which could have been concocted by Vladimir Nabokov", and by Details Magazine as "the creepiest book of the year -- highly recommended". Mr. Lane has written and produced numerous television pilots, series, feature films, and omnimedia shows; he has two CableACE nominations, teaches writing at UCLA, and serves as a fellowship mentor through PEN.