Don't Call Me


Expecting an important call, I dashed for the telephone, shaving lather still on my face, to learn that I had been accorded the signal honor of receiving a new credit card that would make it a matter of ease and efficiency to spend the rest of my days in debt.

"Thank you, no," I told the solicitor, who went on, as his script doubtless indicated, to ask me a series of impertinent questions about how I manage my money. Only the administration of further sharp doses of discouragement loosened his hold on my time and attention.

No one has any compunction about slamming the receiver down in the middle of one of those smarmy computerized calls -- it's the domestic version of cutting off the juice to HAL in "2001" -- but many of us retain some vestigial reluctance to be outright rude to another human being, particularly some poor soul penned in a windowless room to make cold calls by the dozens.

But the nuisances, to no one's surprise, are better organized than we are. Of the two schools that granted me degrees, one lost track of me 20 years ago, but the other, more tenacious, recruits undergraduates to hit up alumni for contributions to the scholarship funds. Saying no makes one feel like Bumble the beadle turning down Oliver Twist's pathetic request for more gruel.

Moreover, we have been sorted out by class and economic background. I was commiserating with a lady about disruptions of the dinner hour when I discovered that the calls to her house come from stockbrokers. (Her husband is a physician.) I, a

humble journalistic drudge, get calls offering cemetery plots. After declining with thanks, I return quietly to the table, wondering what they know that I don't, and spend the rest of the meal in somber reflection on mortality.

Some people ignore calls at mealtime. They must have the fortitude not to count the rings and then strain to listen to the message being left on the answering machine two rooms away. I lack that. Is it my mother? A crisis at work? Official notice that I have been proclaimed emperor and my commands are badly wanted? No, another cemetery plot. I feel my flesh sag an inch nearer the grave.

Now, moved by guilt-inducing advertisements -- "Your daughter is stranded after school and can't get through to you to pick her up!" -- we are about to get call-waiting. No doubt that will lead with intoxicating speed to the telephone solicitation interrupted by another telephone solicitation, cascading one on top of another until night finally brings a restless sleep.

We must find countermeasures that stem the nuisance without completely sacrificing that flattering image of ourselves as decent people.

The late Edmund Wilson, in order to write his books of literary criticism and history without interruption, ordered a card printed up to enable him to deal with intrusive requests:

Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to;

* Read manuscripts,

* Write articles or books to order,

* Write forewords or introductions,

* Make statements for publicity purposes. . .

and so on for a total of 21 categories. He simply checked off the appropriate response and dropped the card in the mail.

I, too, am making up a card, to be placed above the telephone:

Please excuse me, but:

* I do not enter into contractual agreements over the telephone.

* If you send me a letter, I will consider your offer.

* I am busy. Give me your home number and I will call you later.

If enough of us harden our hearts and strengthen our resolve to turn down solicitations, we can hope to live to see the day when people with objects to sell, services to offer and appeals to make will find a more appropriate venue for their offers and enticements. The newspaper would be an excellent place.

John McIntyre is chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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