Midnight Fax to My Ear

By Anthony Buccino

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The advent of our home fax machine turns quickly from blessing to curse to curse words. But at least the dog is happy.


Through modern extrapolation of Alexander Graham Bell’s modest invention, we now have about 35 billion sheets of office paper churning out faxes every year. From luncheonettes to law offices, scarcely a business in the modern world does not have a fax machine.

In fact, the fax has done much to put a crimp in modern postal monopolies. Competition between the postal service and fax machines has heated demonstrably as cost for plain, simple fax machines has dropped below their initial $1,000-plus introductory prices in the early 1980s. Now nary a new computer system does not have at least the simplest software included for faxing.

Adding to the feasibility of fax instead of letters, a current computer fitted with a modem and attached to a phone line can make any home an office or electronic mail substation. People in pajamas can fax letters to the editor from their home in the middle of the night.

Rambling Round - Inside and Outside at the Same Time by Anthony BuccinoMarketers have discovered that sending faxes during off-peak phone rate hours can deliver significant savings over mail and faxing during the day. Many businesses have found it is less expensive to send a local fax than a letter, including postage, printing, stuffing and envelope.

The marketing folk look at shaving every penny on their cost of contact with a prospective client, and sending a fax is often the answer. They envision busy managers rushing into the office in the morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and sitting down with a stack of faxes before placing their orders for the day.

The fax has opened the door for international orders and inquiries. These can be made by the sender at the time of lower local phone rates and reach prospects or suppliers who can then respond to international clients at their own off-peak phone rate hours.

Ironically, it is when these companies reach out and touch each other through fax communication during off-peak hours that the innocent among us are often disturbed.

What can be more disturbing than to have your dinner conversation interrupted by a telephone call that when you say hello into the receiver, it simply beeps at you?

From personal experience, of course, you mumble something the kids are too young to understand, and hang up. A few minutes later, the phone rings again and it is Mr. Fax, again. So, of course, I hang up, again, this time muttering something a little stronger.

Perhaps that is the end of Mr. Fax. But no. it turns out most fax programs will automatically redial up to three-to-five times before giving up and recording an error message.

So, of course, Mr. Fax calls one more time and beeps his obnoxious little beep at me. And calmly I slam the receiver hard enough to give Mr. Fax an electronic concussion.

It is useless to try to talk to Mr. Fax. All he does is beep at you. Perhaps if I had a system of identifying where the call was coming from, I could later contact Mr. Fax and give him what-for.

At our house, we do, in fact, have a way to identify Mr. Fax when he calls. It has happened so often that we programmed our computer fax to show up at sign-on and answer the telephone.

Unfortunately, this works whether or not it is Mr. Fax calling. When our computer is not on, it is our answering machine that records and plays back Mr. Fax’s beeps. Our answering machine tells us what time Mr. Fax called, but not from what number.

When the telephone rings at our house after 10 p.m., it is usually not good news. On the other hand, when Mr. Fax calls after 10 p.m., it usually happens that our computer is not turned on. Then, by the time we, that is, I, run down to the basement and boot-up the PC, Mr. Fax has terminated our connection and gone on to annoy the next family home trying to catch some early Z’s.

At 3:30 a.m. our phone rings and, of course, it is Mon-sewer Fax. I can tell this when I say hello and he beeps at me. I hang up, trying to allow myself enough time to get the old computer going before he redials.

So I race blindly down two flights of stairs and burst the cellar door open, startling the yellow Labrador retriever sleeping under the computer table. I switch on my surge protector, thus allowing power to surge life into my PC. I step back. the phone starts ringing. This time, my computer is not turned on in time to answer.

The dog sits at attention waiting for a Milk-Bone.

The dog yawns.

I yawn.

Do I turn off the computer and go back to bed? Or do I wait for Mon-sewer Fax to call back yet a third time?

I give the dog a bone and stare at the screen saver which my daughter has programmed to scroll “Temporarily comatose,” instead of the flying toasters I had.

A few minutes later, the phone rings, the computer fax comes alive and answers the call. Across the bottom of the screen it tells me “fax connected” and “receiving page one.” In another moment it signals “fax complete” and I am eager to see who would send me a fax at 3:40 a.m.

Click to view. Upon my screen is a business order from the University of South Korea in Seoul requesting prices for my computer products.

But one problem here is that I do not sell computer products from my home, or anywhere.

The other problem is solved as I see the addressee of the fax is a company in Connecticut with a nearly similar area code and phone number.

One thing modern faxes cannot correct is the computer adage “garbage in, garbage out.” That is, if the lowly human inputs the wrong phone number, then Mon-sewer Fax will attempt and attempt and attempt to contact whatever poor soul happens to be at the other end.

At least Mon-sewer Fax is saving the sending company money by making the international long-distance phone calls during off-peak hours.

I, on the other hand, save money by reading the fax on my computer screen and do not add to the already 35 billion sheets of office paper used annually for faxes.

As for the president of marketing at the company in Connecticut, whose curiosity was piqued by my irate message referring to the large order and value of the South Korean midnight fax, he left a rambling apology on our answering machine and offered to tell all his customers, both the ones in Seattle and Seoul, to double check their fax numbers for him.

And would I be kind enough to forward to him the fax message from South Korea with its important message.

Maybe.

Maybe not.

After all, who is going to replace my family’s missing sleep? And who will repay my expense of buying a computer with a fax-modem so I could receive these midnight coded messages from near and foreign lands?

Was this what Alexander Bell had in mind, or was it P.T. Barnum? Perhaps after a well-deserved nap, I’ll be refreshed enough to decide. As long as the phone does not ring.


First published in Rambling Round, July 18, 1996, in The Independent Press of Bloomfield, Worrall Community Newspapers.

Adapted from RAMBLING ROUND  Inside and Outside at the Same Time


See also: Donald Duck Hit the Hay, X-ray, X-ray by Anthony Buccino

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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.

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