Last week, I got a message to go to the police department and pick up my son. He had been in a little trouble, but he was fine. I shouldn't panic.
I took a deep breath. I tried to picture my baby in jail. I couldn't, of course. I don't have any children.I do, however, have an answering machine. The officer had apparently called my number by mistake and now thought the boy's parents had been alerted.
You'd think my message would have been a dead giveaway that no responsible grown-ups lived at my number. Once in a while, when I can't face the world - either live or on Memorex - I let my cat record the machine message.
The police got the cat's tape - three meows followed by a tone.
It could have been worse. A frustrated actor friend of mine writes minidramas and musicals and tapes them for his callers.
"I have this whole group of people who call for my machine, not me. If I ever answer, they say `Oh, you're home. Well, that's OK, I'll just call back later.' "
There have been some problems with the cat message. Some of my friends leave messages in meows, or simply ask the cat to call them back. Then there was the time an old boyfriend called me from Malaysia. He somehow got the idea a child had answered the phone, and he crossed me out of his little black book since I had obviously married. (I guess Malaysian children sound like cats.)
Still, I like my cat message. It's not stuffy and formal. It's not perky. All my friends know they have reached the right phone. It's only phone solicitors, overseas operators and police who have a problem.
While the cat protects my privacy, my actor friend uses his machine to get an audience. Actor Jason Bateman, of the "Hogan Family," used to use the Bateman family answering machine to fool his parents. He was ordered to stay home while his parents were out of town, but he left after recording a busy signal for his parents to listen to.
One of my sisters hates answering machines and accounts for most of the meowing messages I get.
"Why do they even call them answering machines?" she asked. "The whole point is they are `not-answering' machines."
Her other concern is that leaving a message forces her to "go on the record and give someone a permanent tape of you sounding like a fool." As a former journalist, she has seen it happen once or twice.
"I think we should kill all the not-answering machines," she said. "Maybe we could call them and blow a police whistle into their sweet little microphones. That might do the trick. Why don't people who like talking to machines just call `dial-a-prayer' and leave the rest of us out of it?"
What she doesn't understand is I need the machine for protection. One day last year, I came home to learn my machine had answered a call from a computerized solicitor. My machine had talked to the seller's machine for an hour, sparing humans the inconvenience. Do you think I would ever listen to a computer for an hour to spare my answering machine the trauma? Not likely.
Unfortunately, the computer called back later. Seems my answering machine failed to buy anything, and the computer software had been programmed for a hard sell.