My lonely phone-sex years: I learned to ask for what I wanted, 35 cents a minute

"It was all there for the ear, an aural smorgasbord of titillation and perversion"

Published February 15, 2015 1:00AM (EST)

   (<a href=''>karen roach</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(karen roach via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "All The Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found" 

My new apartment was a one-bedroom, second-story walkup in Queens, on the border of Astoria and Long Island City, four stops to Manhattan on the N train. It had been trashed pretty badly by the previous occupants, the only reason it wasn’t gone before I came across the listing. When the landlord showed me the place he apologized for its condition, but I was desperate. I offered him a deal. I’d repaint the whole thing floor to ceiling, lay new tile in the kitchen, tear up the worn purple carpet in the living room, and sand and refinish the wood floors—if he’d waive the security deposit and give me the first three months rent-free. He looked at me as if I were insane, but I’d done the math—I’d save more than two grand—and when I extended my hand, he shook it.

I removed the carpet only to discover little drifts of mouse turds along the walls, plus cockroach corpses by the dozen. The new paint job required multiple coats to cover the underlying shade of Pepto-Bismol pink. I rented a large circular sander for the wood floors and applied sealer every other day in strips so I could move from room to room without ruining the finish. The work took almost every spare waking minute I had over three weeks, and the smells of paint and polyurethane were a long time in fading. Still, it was satisfying to live alone again—no roommate, no feral cats—and in a neighborhood where I had no trouble blending in: middle class, ethnically diverse, with a Mediterranean flavor thanks to the one of the largest expat populations of Greeks in the world.

Though I finally had a set of rooms all my own, I found my new freedom slightly unnerving. Unlike in Bed-Stuy, there were plenty of restaurants and bars and cafés within a short walk of my apartment. The options for whiling away an evening overwhelmed me with their variety; I couldn’t seem to find the place to call mine, the place where a loner could sit cocooned in silence and remain unremarked-upon, unseen.

Committing to the life of a loner involves one difficulty above all others: even loners, perhaps especially loners, often find themselves horny. In New York whole industries thrived on the basis of this simple fact, and nowhere was this more evident than in the Village Voice classifieds. I began to study those pages with what I thought of as a detached and almost scholarly amusement, but one ad in particular kept calling to me with the promise of amateur phone sex. The very existence of amateur phone sex intrigued me. I’d always assumed it was a realm for professionals.

It wasn’t long before I memorized the prerecorded greeting. I even learned to mimic the perky-bimbo inflections of the woman who recited it:

Thanks for calling the all-live, all-the-time phone line where ladies call free to share their fantasies with you. If you’re under eighteen, you must hang up. . . .

Welcome to the exciting new way to talk one-on-one with the area’s hottest students, housewives, and working girls for just thirty-five cents per minute, seventy-five for the first. . . .

I knew the city’s hottest students, housewives, and working girls weren’t sitting at home pressing speed-dial with one hand while petting themselves with the other, but when I called that first night I thought I might get lucky and connect with an introverted bombshell, a naughty librarian. We’d talk about music or books or the Kyoto Protocol. We’d choose a place to meet for a drink. We’d proceed to her place, or mine, and lick each other’s privates in the dark.

Half the single people my age in New York were already using the Internet as a portal to erotic adventure, but I’d always been a little slow adopting new technologies. It was the new millennium and I was still using a manual typewriter.

Main menu: Press one for sexy recorded personals, or press two for live connections on the talk line.

I pressed two.

Press one to talk to women, or press two to talk to men.

I pressed one.

Live talk main menu: Press one to connect with callers who are on the line right now. Press two to record or update your dateline personals greeting.

I pressed one.

You have ninety seconds to describe who you are and what you’re interested in. Take care with your privacy—no full names, addresses, or other information that could be abused by other callers. Here’s your chance to make an introduction. The most intriguing greetings get the most responses, so make your ad as sexy as you can. Your privacy is guaranteed. Your greeting will play only to others who are on the talk line when you are. To remove your greeting, just hang up. You can rerecord as often as you need to, until you’re satisfied. Start speaking at the tone. Press pound when you’re done. Good luck.

I was drearily earnest at first. I stressed my status as a gainfully employed, suit-wearing monkey. I laid on the midwestern charm, the whole small-town-boy-in-the-big-city act. I waxed poetic about my love of music and books, going to museums, eating out. I was, in short, Prince Charming, a perfect gentleman straight from the script of a rom-com, just the push of a button away.

Welcome to the talk line!

Rarely have I heard such scorn. Women sent recorded messages in which they simply cackled at me. Some were incredulous: You’re actually looking for a date? On this line? One even presumed to judge my anatomy: Come on, little boy, pull that itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie out of your pants and play with momma. . . .

I hung up that first night completely demoralized. I wanted to be appalled at all the perverts and misfits on their telephones across the city—the heavy-breathers, the pre-op transsexuals, the women from the Bronx looking to play for pay—but I was mostly disappointed in myself. They, at least, were candid about what they wanted.

And what did I want? There’s no way I could have been honest about that. What was I supposed to say: I need someone to sleep with me so I can tell the story of my brother’s death? That would have had the virtue of being true, as if the truth were a virtue on a phone-sex line. Over the course of a few short-lived flings in the time since Dan’s suicide, I’d discovered that sex emptied my mind of everything nonessential, and the one thing that remained essential, I thought, was the story of his suicide. Everything else was a dream or an anecdote. Nothing else meant a thing, not compared with the big story, and I just couldn’t talk about it unless I’d bared myself in physical intimacy. Hard to imagine working that up as an attractive come-on, though: Hey, sweetheart, let’s screw with our eyes closed and then snuggle up for some pillow talk about the mysteries of self-inflicted death. Will you listen if I tell you?

* * *

In time I worked through my initial misgivings about phone sex. I did the practical thing. I listened and learned. The rules were simple. You could lie about what you looked like—who would know the difference?—but you’d best be blunt about your desires if you didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. It was all there for the ear, an aural smorgasbord of titillation and perversion, thirty-five cents per minute, seventy-five for the first, every kinky fantasy you’ve ever heard about and more, and plenty of people willing to pay and be paid for real-world sex. You listened, one after another, to little personal ads (“greetings”) in the voice of the person being personal, and make no mistake, they were personal, about everything under the sun from golden showers to gang bangs, with an emphasis on interracial pleasure seeking and an unmistakable undertone of pitiful desperation.

Press one to repeat this greeting. Press two to send a private message. Press three to ask this caller to connect with you live, one-on-one. Press four to hear the next caller’s greeting. Press five to return to the previous ad. Press seven to block this caller from contacting you.

With a bit of practice I developed a whole portfolio of personae, ranging from the iconic to the cryptic. Clark Kent Calling from a Phone Booth was my go-to line. His readymade image allowed me to dispense with laborious physical description. He was also the perfect fantasy man of the women’s magazines—a reliable breadwinner, a modest but hunky journalist who morphed into Superman when he took off his clothes.

Super-Exhibitionistic Horse-Cock Boy was a bit of inspired ad-lib. One night I made up a story about masturbating in front of my living room window while a neighbor woman watched me from her kitchen across the courtyard. Messages flooded in. Everyone wanted to hear about it. Part of the allure of an amateur sex line involved its invitation to be playful with the rituals of the form: it felt appropriate to situate the fantasy itself inside an act of voyeurism.

The Sound of One Hand Slapping was a late addition to my repertoire, and by no means original; I heard many masterly variations. I merely put my own spin on an old phone-sex standard. The trick, of course, was in the execution. I tried at first for authenticity, recording an actual masturbatory stroke, but it was too subtle for the mouthpiece to pick up, and I kept getting a prerecorded admonition: I’m sorry, your message must be at least ten seconds long. Please try again. At first I misheard this as: I’m sorry, your member must be at least ten inches long. Please try again. I experimented until I found a plausible substitute, which involved rubbing my index finger back and forth across the mouthpiece. When I replayed the message to confirm it, I heard a sound that hinted at some sort of deviant friction. By pressing my fingertip with greater or lesser force, I could create a stylized rendition of vigorous, almost violent copulation, or gentle, sensuous cock-stroking. (Later I even recorded an actual slap, although I struck my thigh instead of my ass, having learned that on the talk line impression is reality.) The virtue of this method arose from its ambiguity, its invitation for others to initiate the fantasy. It allowed me, in the opening joust of a phone fuck, to shield my voice from other callers.

I’d dialed so often my voice had become a known quantity.

Once I got hooked I had to make a real effort not to call every night. Evenings when I stayed away from the phone tended to play out in the same way. I’d be abducted by one of my blue moods, a combination of loneliness and claustrophobia at the thought of all the human longing playing out in the towers and the streets, in the privacy of little urban rooms. I’d run out of patience for reading, my usual strategy of escape, so I’d pace my apartment, listening to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, until I tired of retracing my steps. I’d take my notebook and go for a beer at one of the Irish joints in my neighborhood: O’Hanlon’s, McCann’s, McCaffrey & Burke. There was always something soothing in the murmur of voices and the clank of glassware, men and sometimes even a few women talking in the smoky, intimate light. I liked to imagine I’d find a beautiful woman sipping whiskey all alone in the corner. Our eyes would meet. I’d buy her a drink. We’d step, just for a moment, from the frame of the Hopper painting that circumscribed our lives. Or maybe we’d step into the frame, create a moment of melancholy beauty we could hold with us forever.

No matter. She was never there.

Excerpted from "All The Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found" by Philip Connors. Copyright © 2015 by Philip Connors. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

By Philip Connors

Philip Connors is the author of Fire Season, which won the Banff Mountain Book Competition Grand Prize, the National Outdoor Book Award, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, and the Reading the West Book Award. Connors's writing has also appeared in Harper's, n+1, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New Mexico.

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