1876 — Patent for the Telephone issued to Alexander Graham Bell
In the memorable opening to the trailer for 1971’s The Omega Man, Charlton Heston walks the empty streets of New York City as random newspaper pages waft through the air. A ring sounds from the nearest payphone. He turns his head, and a booth across the street rings, too, then one further down, and then another. With the same tooth-clenching grimace he once used when shouting at “damn dirty apes” or the half-buried Statue of Liberty, Heston covers his ears and screams, “There is no phone ringing, dammit!”
That logical assertion is enough to make the ringing stop.
He’s the last man on Earth — there’s nobody to call him.
You’re in a similar predicament now, but there’s no longer phone booths to ring. Instead, you see ownerless cell phones along the side of the road, or in abandoned cars, or in burned-out garbage heaps.
It would be nice if one of the phones would ring. You’ve almost forgotten what it was like to talk to another human being.
The batteries for all the phones have died. The power lines to the cell towers no longer operate.
You keep walking through empty streets. There are no newspaper pages floating through the air, since the newspapers had gone out of business — in the Final Days, people preferred to follow current events (and jokes and trivia and silly photos) from their phones.
At the blocked end of Sixth Street, you turn around and head back. From the other side of a broken store front, you hear the digitized ring of an old-fashioned telephone.
An ironic ring tone. Which bring to mind other ring tones people programmed into their phones. Electronic trills and musical notes, sound bytes and song clips.
Across the street, you hear the four-tone bird whistle one manufacturer used as default. From a pile of rubble, you hear a quick, jaunty waltz. Further down the road, the march of Star Wars storm troopers thumps menacingly from tiny speakers (it’s the same tone you’d linked to your Mother-in-Law’s number, so you could brace yourself before answering).
The sound files repeat in overlapping cycles, and it’s like the world is alive again. You spin in the middle of the street, almost a dance, as you wonder which phone to answer first.
A cartoon rabbit asks you what’s up, again and again. The chorus of an REM song plays, then a line from Miley’s “Wrecking Ball.”
Your own cell phone, which you carry with you out of habit, suddenly starts to vibrate in your pocket. The ring tone plays, and it’s a sound clip from a 1971 movie that tells you, “There is no phone ringing, dammit.”
You swipe your finger across the blank screen, lift the cellphone to your ear, shout a hopeful Hello over the din.