Thursday, August 15, 2013

One Minute, Please!

Image borrowed from a science teacher from Jersey, who
doesn't know where it came from either.
As new communications technology continues reshaping society according to the ineluctable, inscrutable, and sacrosanct Will of the Market (blessed be Its numbers), we commonly hear people voicing their displeasure about the broken promises of "Web 2.0" and its networked gizmos. The usual grievance runs something like: "contrary what we were told we were buying into when we all moved our lives onto the Internet and the Internet onto our phones, we're now more alone, more scatterbrained, more rushed, more stressed, and less satisfied than we were before."

It's pretty much all true, and we might as well get used to it. There's nothing we can do. Progress cannot be stopped, and in retrospect we'll look silly for expressing apprehension at the unfurling of its grand designs for its anointed people. Someday one of our descendants will activate the "social history: 21st century" node on the Mens Mentis Alvarium global neural network and engage in a one-way interface with our archived kvetchings about the frustrations and inconveniences of our primitive excutaneous "devices" with a sort of nuanced glee that our 21st century capacity for irony is of yet too unsophisticated to appreciate. Instead of focusing on our dismally lonely and demanding present, we are better off taking the example of our unborn successors and looking to the past so that we might derive amusement from our great-grandparents' exasperation with the quote-unquote technology of their own era. (The PLEISTOCENE era, am I right? Snicker, snicker, so alone, snicker.)

So! Here is a short piece from humorist Robert Benchley called "One Minute, Please!" I read it in a book called The Benchley Roundup; the good folks at Down with Tyranny spared me the trouble of having to transcribe it myself, and were also so kind as to attribute a likely date of 1930 to the piece.


"One Minute, Please!"

I am known as a bad business man from one end of the country to just a little beyond the same end. Practically every one in my class in kindergarten went into business after graduation, and when I say business I mean business. Whenever I see them now they are always dressed up in stiff shirts and are making marks on the backs of envelopes. Get me a hundred of my old schoolmates together and let them talk from 9 a.m. until almost dinner time and I won't understand a word they are saying. It is only around dinner time that I begin to catch a glimmer of sense and then they have to come right out and say "Martini" or "Green turtle soup." At this point I join the party.

But not until I have had it said to me eight or a dozen times that I ought to be more businesslike. "Good old Bob," they say (those of them who remember that my name is "Bob"), "you are just a sucker to be so impractical. Why don t you let us take some of your money and triple it for you?"

Leaving aside the question "What money?" I am frankly at a loss for something to say. Here I am, just a dreamer, and there they are, captains of industry, or, at any rate, second lieutenants. They have the advantage of me.

Of course, if I wanted to, I might point out that out of a possible $5000 which I have made since I left school I have had $3000 worth of good food (all of which has gone into making bone and muscle and some nice fat), $1500 worth of theatre tickets, and $500 worth of candy; whereas many of my business friends have simply had $5000 worth of whatever that stock was which got so yellow along about last November.

I was sympathetic with all the boys at that time and even advanced a little cash in a sparing manner, but I couldn't help remembering the days during the summer when I had to sit and listen to them say, "Well, I made $650,000 over the week end. What will you have, Bob, old man?" And all the time I was, in my old impractical way, sinking my money into silk neckties (which I still have) and throwing it away on life-giving beefsteaks.

I do not intend to dwell on this phase of life's whirligig, however. Who can tell, perhaps some day even we spendthrifts may find ourselves short of cash. In the meantime, those of us who have nothing but fripperies to show for our money have had a good laugh. At least we've got the fripperies.

What I do want to dwell on is the point that there are still a great many practices which are considered businesslike and efficient and which any one of us old dreamers could improve upon and speed up. Now you sit still and read this. I have sat still and listened to you long enough.

First, there is the question of business telephoning. During the last five or six years there has spread throughout the business world a method of telephoning which, so far as I am concerned, bids fair to destroy all channels of business communication. If it keeps up, I, for one, will go back to the old Indian runner and carrier pigeon methods. I won't stand for this another day. In fact, I stopped standing for it a year ago.

I refer to the delayed-pass play, so popular among busy executives. In this play your busy executive, when he wants to get me on the telephone (why he should want to get me on the telephone is a mystery), says to his secretary, "Get me Mr. Benchley on the wire, Miss Whatney." You see, he hasn't got the time to get me himself, what with all those stocks he has to tend to, so he has Miss Whatney do it for him. So far, pretty good. Miss Whatney looks up my number in the book and gives it io the operator at the switchboard, thereby releasing the busy executive for other duties, such as biting off the end of a cigar or drawing circles on his scratch pad.

The scene now changes and we see me, the impractical dreamer, sitting at an old typewriter with nothing to do but finish an article which was due the day before. My telephone rings and I, in my slipshod, impractical way, answer it. And what do I get for my pains?

"Is this Vanderbilt 0647? Is Mr. Benchley there? Just a minute, please!"

Having nothing to do but wool-gather, I wait. In about two minutes I hear another female voice saying, "Is this Mr. Benchley? Just a minute, please, Mr. Kleek wants to speak to you."

Remember, it is Mr. Kleek who is calling me up. I don't want to speak to Mr. Kleek. I wouldn't care if I never spoke to him. In fact, I am not sure that I know who Mr. Kleek is.

"Just a minute, please," comes the voice again. "Mr. Kleek is talking on another wire."

Now, fascinating as this information is, it really wasn't worth getting up out of my chair for. Mr. Kleek could be busy on eight other wires and my life would go on just about the same. Am I to be called away from my work to be told that a Mr. Kleek is talking on another wire? I think this out as I stand there waiting.

Finally, after several minutes. I hear a man's voice.

"Hello," it says gruffly, "who is this?" I am not only to be told to wait until Mr. Kleek is ready to speak to me, but I am to be treated by Mr. Kleek as if I had infringed on his time. At this point I frankly flare up.

"Who is this yourself?" I snarl. "This was your idea, not mine."

Then evidently Miss Whatney tells Mr. Kleek that she has got Mr. Benchley on the wire, and he is somewhat mollified. But I want to tell you, Mr. Kleek, that by that time I am not on the wire any longer and you can stick that telephone ear-piece into the side of your head. Furthermore, from now on, the minute I am called to the telephone and told to wait a minute, that Mr. Anybody wants to speak to me, I hang up so quickly that the hook drops off. If Mr. Kleek or any other busy executive wants to speak to me he can be there within four seconds after I answer or he can put in the call again. I may be just an old wool-gatherer, but I want to gather my wool somewhere else than at a telephone receiver.

It is possible that the telephone has been responsible for more business inefficiency than any other agency except laudanum. It has such an air of pseudo-efficiency about it that people feel efficient the minute they take the receiver off the hook. A business man could be talking with Ajax, the mechanical chess player, on the other end of the wire and still feel he was getting somewhere, simply because to anyone passing the door he looks as if he were very busy. There is something about saying "O.K." and hanging up the receiver with a bang that kids a man into feeling that he has just pulled off a big deal, even if he has only called up Central to find out the correct time. For this reason business men use the telephone exclusively when almost any other form of communication would be quicker.

In the old days when you wanted to get in touch with a man you wrote a note, sprinkled it with sand, and gave it to a man on horseback. It probably was delivered within half an hour, depending on how big a lunch the horse had had. But in these busy days of rush-rush-rush, it sometimes is a week before you can catch your man on the telephone. The call is put in, but he is out. You tell your secretary to keep calling, but, if the man takes any kind of care of himself at all, he is out most all day in the fresh air. So day after day the secretary keeps calling and, in this way, autumn turns into winter and winter to spring. Perhaps you never get him.

A busy executive said to me the other day in an exasperated tone, "Aren't you ever in? I have been trying to get you on the telephone for five days. What do you do with your time, cut lawns?" You see, I am the one who was in the wrong. I was the impractical one.

I might have told him about that new invention called the "typewriter," whereby, if you can't get a man on the telephone, you can drop him a note which will reach him the next morning. Or I also might have told him that I was in my office all the time, but was so busy working that I had left word with the telephone operator not to bother me with time-wasting calls from business men. In either case, dropping me a note would have saved him four days of telephoning. But apparently note-dropping is considered a relic of Civil War days and is not to be considered in the bustle of modern business. You must use the telephone, even if it doesn't get you anywhere.

The telephone is the particular pet of the go-getter who won't take no for an answer. He has a passion for long-distance calls. Let us say that his organization is getting up a dinner in Chicago and wants to get an after-dinner speaker from New York. The go-getter is, of course, chairman of the dinner committee because he gets things done. He guarantees to get the New York speaker. "Leave it to me," he says, knowingly. And, even as he says it, he is putting in a long-distance call for New York. Bingo -- like that! The New York man answers and gets the following:

"This is Ferley of the Autumn Coat and Suit speaking! We're holding a dinner here on February 10th, and you're coming out to speak for us! -- O, yes, you are! I won't take no for an answer. . . . O, yes, you can -- I'll call those people up and tell them you're coming to us. . . . Now, not another word! -- See you on the 10th!"

With this he hangs up and reports to the committee that he has the speaker sewed up. The fact that the New York man can't go to Chicago on the 10th and has no intention of going doesn't enter into the calculations at all. No one is supposed to be able to resist the man with the telephone personality. He sweeps everything before him.

The only drawback is that, two days before the dinner, when it is found out that the New York speaker meant what he said and really isn't coming, the go-getter has to go-get somebody through a local agency to do card tricks for the diners. "That's the trouble with dealing with these literary guys," he thunders. "You can't count on them!" And he puts in another long-distance call just to quiet his nerves.

And so it goes through life. There are the doers and the dreamers, the men who make every second count and the men who waste their time with nothing to show for it. The first are the business men of the country, the others are the impractical fellows who write and draw pictures. Or perhaps it is just the other way 'round. I always get these things mixed.


  1. Hilarious. I have the book 'Chip off the Old Benchley' somewhere around here. The man had such great timing.