I do not normally engage in idle boasting and prefer to think of myself as someone who is fairly humble about my achievements and skills. I put a premium on modesty — after all, those who know me best will readily tell you that I have a lot to be modest about. So it is with some trepidation that I venture here to unveil to all my blog friends a talent that, as far as I know, is unique to me and me alone. Something that no other person I have ever met has done, or perhaps even thought to try. So please forgive me and bear with this immodesty.
You see, years ago I used to converse with fax machines. You all remember fax machines, right? I know that the web, email, Acrobat Reader and scanners are quickly making them obsolete. In fact, the reason I choose to share this unique gift of mine now is precisely because soon there will be many people who have never seen a fax and may not even know what they were used for. Yes, the fax machine is doomed to go the way of the slide rule I remember using in high school chemistry class and the punched cards fed into those early computers in my first computer science course (I guess this dates me).
I work at home as a legal and financial translator and have been doing so for over 20 years now. On the whole, this has been great as it has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my daughters, and work in my pajamas while listening to my Charles Mingus CDs. When I first started, much of the work sent to me was on paper, not in electronic files, and it would be faxed to me. I did not actually have a fax machine per se, but a fax modem in my PC. Remember, all of this was before email. So clients would fax their bond issue underwriting agreements and other pearls of world literature straight to my fax modem through my one and only voice line (not called voice line back then, just “the phone”).
Some of you may remember the routine. You would get a call, pick up the phone, say Hello, (Hola in my case, shouted above Mingus's Haitian Fight Song) and, when you heard the telltale screechy electronic squeal, run the fax program on the PC. The only problem was that I would often not have the program running, or the PC would not even be on. In what seemed like the interminable wait for the fax application to ready itself to take over, my fax caller would re-bleat the greeting, more insistently all the time, then become angry to the point of downright nasty. Since I could not really understand the speeding string of shrieked metallic expletives that followed, I would not take much offence, but I did find it nerve wracking to be cowed into anguished silence while waiting to see if good ole fax app would step in just in time and literally get me off the hook.
Sometimes he would, and the sternly squealed scolding would subside. Fax app and the aggrieved fax would begin to chatter away happily and I would hang up so they could get on with their conversation without me. But more often than not, the fax app cavalry would not ride in in time to save the day: the screaming electronic gibberish on the other side of the conversation would tire out, give up and end the call, sometimes but a mere second or two before fax app would happily announce on my computer screen that he was ready to rumble (or squeal actually; it was Mingus who was rumbling). But by then the somber dial tone had returned to let me know that I had really let someone down.
This invariably meant that I would have to guess as to which client might have been trying to send me work, call them on the phone and, if indeed they were the owners of the forlorn fax screamer, request that they apologize for me to the miffed mystery mutterer and kindly call or ring or fax or shriek again, that my fax app was now up and running.
Eventually, I came upon an inspired solution, born of frustration and quite by chance but inspired nonetheless. No, nothing as simple as having my PC on and fax app running in the background. Puh-lease, that would have been obvious to the point of banality.
No, instead, one frustrated afternoon, annoyed by the insistent shrill gerbil squeaking at me, irritated by my own humiliated silence, and convinced that fax app was never going to take over in time before the high-octave and high-decibel delirium on the other end of the line lost all patience, what I did was to start screeching back: chrreeeeeee! shreeee! peteleee! xxhreeee! tleee tleee tleee tleeee!!! (I am only paraphrasing the conversation here — as this was many years ago).
And to my complete and utter amazement ... it worked. Instantly, my shrill squawking produced silence on the other end. A very expectant silence that I was sure would be followed by the telltale dial tone or a renewed outburst of electronic metal invective lambasting me for my brazenness. But, no, that rich silence was followed by something even richer: a meek and suddenly humbled "blee ... blee ... blee?".
Ha! HAA!!! I had it doubting! And I was no longer to be pushed around. I continued my high-pitched shrieking with another volley of chreeess and shreeees and tleeeess. Again, silence. And then ... a soft and almost plangent ... bleeeeeeeee??? Now that the tables were turned and I was the overbearing bully, I viciously held forth with another round of garbled gerbil gibberish of my own. This time, though, my fax sparring partner bounced back off the ropes a bit more aggressively, less cowed, and started spewing his electronic expletives again. I took it on the chin and responded in kind, letting fly a flurry of squeals. This incensed him and he tried to intimidate me with further salvos of fax fury, but I could tell his heart wasn't in it. It just wasn't the same any more. I had at the least won myself some grudging respect, damn it.
Well I won't go on with all the irritating shrill chirpy details, but the point is that just as the squealfest was starting to get ugly, fax app stepped in and took over for me. He beeped out a short cadence of squeaks himself and that seemed to quickly mollify my agitated but befuddled fax caller. The fax arrived correctly.
And, sure enough, this soon became a habit. The truth is I was quite pleased with this new-found gift of mine and discovered I was consistently able to hold my own with fax callers. The initial acrimony of this first encounter did not return and our squealing and squeaking was soon trained on weightier matters. Not that the conversations made much sense or shed any light on the mysterious inner reaches of the human soul, but they did generally succeed in holding the client caller at bay until fax app took over for me at the helm.
I would enjoy experimenting with new elocutions and messages. Almost anything would work as long as it was screeched very fast, very high pitched and very loud. Gibberish was fine, but I pride myself on being an added-value shrieker, so I tried loftier oratorical patter. Shakespeare was a favorite. What could be more fun than to declaim "To be or not to be ..." three octaves higher than normal and at five times the speed? Granted, Hamlet's famous soliloquy does lose some of its existential gravitas when intoned by what could only be likened to a helium-inhaling castrati choir of Alvin and the Chipmunks on an amphetamine binge. But I was not trying to rival Sir Laurence Olivier, I was just trying to hold the line for fax app. And, hey, it worked. I was proud.
My wife and daughters less so. Eventually, they did get used to it though — believe it or not, I have indulged and they have learned to live with habits even stranger than this one. But I will never forget the pained expression on Isabel's face, cringing as she closed the door to my office, her eyes rolling upward and sighing a resigned "Papá, por favor!" as she wondered how she was going to explain to her visiting friend why daddy was singing-whining I Got Plenty O' Nothin' from Porgy and Bess at the top of his tonsils into the phone. And more than once I felt an alarmed shudder run through me as I pondered what would happen if the clients on the other end could actually hear where they were sending their prospectuses on mortgage-backed securities for translation (yes, those very same ones that have nearly torched the international financial system). Happily, that never happened and I continued to regale my fax callers with my doppler-defying digital diatribes.
But, alas, those days are gone now. Nobody ever sends me faxes any more. My current PC does not even have fax capabilities. My squeals and shrieks are just a happy echoed memory of this singular accomplishment of mine. There is nothing at present that I can point to in my narrow repertoire of skills as truly unique. Again, I have much to be modest about; I can live with this humbling knowledge. But something inside me will always be tickled when I look back and think that ... Doctor Doolittle could talk to the animals. Robert Redford whispered to horses. And me? Lorenzo? I was The Fax Chatterer.