Requiem for an Answering Service

Once upon a time, the aspiring actors of New York City lived in a cruel and barren landscape, devoid of the technology we take for granted today. There were no convenient websites with professional resources at a keystroke. No email to check. No cell phones by which agents, directors, and casting assistants might reach us. Only PHONE phones – clunky, tethered-to-one spot land-line-employing telephones. Like a lovelorn teenager, if you thought there was a chance somebody was liable to contact you about acting work, you had to be sitting by the phone waiting for the call – which was of course impossible if you were out doing the legwork necessary to get people to make that call.

The solution, back in those benighted times, was the answering service. For a nominal fee, the service would host an answering machine in your name, which you could check remotely. We did check them remotely, several times a day, from pay phones all around town as we made our rounds and from our houses and apartments when we made it safely back home. You’d call your own number, and if you heard no ring tone before your greeting, you knew there was a message awaiting you and you pressed the requisite series of buttons to access it. (If you did hear a ring tone, there were no messages, and you hung up right away to save the quarter.)

Cell phones did come, and iPhones thereafter, and all manner of other wonders of technology. Casting offices found ways of moving the entire casting process online, bypassing this whole strange procedure. The answering service joined the telegraph and the rotary dial as an antiquated communication technology. I, however, continued to maintain my service, and pay the ever-less-nominal fee, even as I got myself an iPhone and joined the 21st century, and even as ownership of the company hosting the service changed hands three or four times over the years. Though the overwhelming majority of my professional communication was on my cellphone or online (or, nowadays, on Facebook), that service number was still there, just in case.

That changed this past week. I called to check my service, as has been my daily wont so far this millennium, only to find that my greeting had been replaced without my knowledge. It turned out this was part of a redesign of the service, and as I investigated further, it was clear that this redesign was geared towards checking messages in an office setting, which was the primary mission of the company which now hosted my service. The days of actors checking their messages with them were so remote that even the technology designed for that purpose no longer knew how to support it. So, with my service no longer serving any function, I cancelled it.

Why on earth did I wait so long?

Part of it is that I still have headshots and resumes circulating with phone number on the upper right hand corner. There are still friends and contacts I know from shows long finished, for whom that old service number was still in their files, and I wanted to be certain I didn’t lose touch with them. And part of it is just inertia on my part. But the real reason lies, again, in something that technology has rendered practically incomprehensible.

Namely, the importance of the right area code.

You see, back in those long ago days of actors checking in on payphones and pagers, casting personnel didn’t want to be bothered with anybody they couldn’t get on a moment’s notice. And so, whether they’ll admit it or not, they were disinclined to reach out to anybody without a 212 Manhattan area code. A 718 area code might work, but they’d look at you funny. (The 646 area code didn't even exist yet – remember that there’s a 1998 Seinfeld episode entitled “The Maid,” which features distrust of and contempt for this new area code as a plot point, and you may consider Elaine Benes’ opinions to be emblematic of the casting professionals of the day). And at the time, I was living on Long Island – the dreaded 516 prefix, which might as well have been the kiss of death (even though my commute into Midtown was shorter than somebody living up in Inwood or Washington Heights would have experienced).

So the need for that service was just as much about having a 212 area code to prove to potential employers that I was dependable and trustworthy. Which, if you think about it, is insane. I had to spend money out of my own empty pocket to try and conceal a basic fact of my existence, in order to come the prejudices of potential employers. And nowadays, with people maintaining cell phone plans from all over the nation and the average contact sheet a glorious jumble of digits, such prejudice can’t possibly exist.

And so I express my hope that, contrary to the set-backs of the past year, we can all start living in a world where our advancing technology really does dissolve the prejudices that keep us apart, rather than reinforce them. And while there are many forms this hope may take, and many fronts on which to fight this battle, today I do so in a way that’s trivial to most people, but dearly relevant to me – by celebrating the long-overdue end of the answering service. 


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