There is an irksome dead zone on Arastradero Road just after you turn right off Page Mill and before you pass the open preserve parking lot. We can send probes to Mars and men to the Moon, but for some inexplicable reason, my cell phone carrier (whose name rhymes with “Splint”) is incapable of providing coverage to a 500 foot expanse of terra firma located smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. I find this ironic, as well as, tedious because often when I experience a connection FAIL, I am on the phone with my mother. The inconvenience forces me to call her back and defend myself.
“No, Mom. I would never cut you off like that.”
Sometimes she believes me, other times, not so much. Growing up in Algiers, in the middle of the war, she became a naturally skeptical person. The habit to question everyone’s motivations extends to even her children. She does not believe that there are places around Stanford University where mobile phones do not work. Frankly, I share her disbelief.
The “dropped call” predicament with my mother has happened at least a dozen times within the last four or five years, and you would think that either me or Splint would figure out a solution by now, but we haven’t. When I do call her back, she says:
“What’s rhounge with your pheune?”
“Nothing.” I respond, “It works fine, as demonstrated by the very fact that I have just called you back.” I sound snarky but I was not intending to be.
With an equally snarky annoyance that only the French can truly master, she says “Eezit that pheune that you are alwayz tapping on? Like a crayzee person. Tap tap tap all day longue, and zen you egnore me when I talk to you.”
“It’s called a Blackberry. That happened one time when I was working. Can you please just let that go? ”
“I detest zat pheune,” she says. “Call me laytahr when eet will not cut me.” The line goes dead.
A few years ago, I bought my first car with Bluetooth built in. It was a delight to have voice activated calling. I assumed that such advanced technology would solve my “dropped call” tribulations. One day, in order to test my theory, I drove down the exit ramp from Highway 280 to Alpine Road, and commanded my dashboard genie to “Call. MOM.” This phrase I enunciated slowly, with perfect diction.
Within moments, the cab filled with a loud, good old fashion ring tone. After a short wait, Dr. Tom, my vet answered. I knew it was Dr. Tom immediately because he has a Texas accent and he always greets callers with a crisp “Yep.” Without losing a beat I made an appointment to have my Arabians vaccinated. Sometimes, you make a wrong call that you actually needed to make.
From Alpine Road I turned left at Rosati’s onto Arastradero, and headed towards the dead zone. I tried the voice activated system again.
“Call…..Mom,” I commanded with the same voice I use to instruct a puppy to fetch.
The Bluetooth genie dialed once more. This time my mother picked up.
“Allo?” Her voice was husky.
“Hi Mom,” I said.
“Allo? Who eez dis?”
We spoke at the same time, our words colliding on the same frequency, canceling each other out.
I shouted, “Can you hear me? ”
“Who eez dis?”
It was a vortex of clique advertising.
“Can you hear me? It’s Thais.” I was named after an opera by Jules Massenet but that is a whole different story.
“Whaa? I hear only zee wind. Shut zee window.”
“No, Mom. I’m in my new car using Bluetooth.”
“I hear only zee wind,” she said again. Then she accused me of being on a train in the Chunnel.
Passing the open preserve, as if on cue, the vacuum of radio waves unceremoniously sucked our conversation out of the air and left only a series of warning beeps. The dead zone persisted. I found myself relieved and disappointed at the same time. It was the end of the day, and I was tired. I didn’t have the energy to explain that I was not calling from the depths of the English Channel. I suspected that Splint probably had a black hole down there too. And sadly, the dashboard genie couldn’t remedy the lack of a local radio transmitter.
I am not a person that anyone would ever mistake as a techie. In college, I took one semester of programming and loathed every moment of it. I refer to copy machines as magic replicators. When faced with the task of pairing devices or synching appliances, I contact the local Geek Squad.
The vexing situation on Arastradero required that I consult an old friend. Heather had started with one of the first smart phone companies when it was headquartered in a construction trailer parked across the street from an Arby’s. She had worked her way up in the industry to the point now where she was a Board member for several venture backed start-ups. She responded to my email immediately and agreed to meet for breakfast the very next day.
The pancake palace, as we liked to call it, was crammed with people all eager to suck down as much coffee and maple syrup as possible. The breakfast of champions: Java and sugar.
“What can be done?” I asked as I reached for a bottle of ketchup. I love ketchup and wondered what didn’t taste good with a little ketchup.
“Not much,” she shrugged, “unless you are willing to fork over $2 million for a postage stamp area of land in the hills and plant a tower on it.”
“How is that possible?” I whined turning the bottle over and giving it a good shake.
“It’s residential land,” she observed. “You’ve heard of NIMBY, right? No one wants a tower on their front yard.”
“Jeez. Palo Alto is ground zero when it comes to mobile.” I patted some dollops of ketchup onto my cholesterol free, fake scrambled eggs. “It practically owes its existence to HP.”
“Correction, HP isn’t really mobile,” scoffed Heather.
“Didn’t they just buy Palm?” I asked sticking a knife into the thin neck of the ketchup bottle.
“My point exactly,” Heather countered.
“That’s not very charitable,” I said.
“Are you done fighting with the ketchup, yet?
A busboy wearing in a black t-shirt decorated with a teetering tower of pancakes whipped by our table and motioned to a pot of hot brew hanging from his extended right arm. Heather put her left hand over the rim of her brown ceramic mug and made a stop sign with other. The busboy continued to the next booth without missing a step.
“Like I said, how can the powers that be accept going dead in the water not more than a mile from Meg Whitman’s parking spot?”
“It’s absurd, isn’t it?” Heather said cheerfully.
“Damn,” I muttered noticing ketchup on the cuff of my right sleeve.
Heather pushed her glass of water towards me a few inches.
“It was bound to happen,” she said. “You can’t wrestle with ketchup and come out unscathed.”
“I know better,” I replied glumly as I dunked my paper napkin into the water.
Heather watched me silently as I concentrated on blotting what would be a sure stain. I only managed to lighten it a shade and smear it into twice its size. Ketchup was like India ink. Once you had spilled it on the carpet, the only thing you could do is leave alone and push a large piece of furniture over it.
“What did you think about that article I sent you on Hedy Lamarr?” asked Heather.
I froze and conducted an instant search of my memory. I had a vague recollection of an email from Heather with a link to an article but I could find no compelling reason to click through. The email sat in my inbox like a forgotten present.
“You didn’t even bother to open it, did you?” Heather frowned.
“I am so far behind on email it’s frightening.”
“Its worth your time,” she assured me as she knotted a Hermes scarf around her neck and readied herself to go.
“Really?” I asked thinking of an inbox full of attachments that lay in wait for me.
“Trust me,” she smiled.
Rain filled the gutters and splashed into small pools along the driveway. I walked, umbrella overhead, along the curving cobblestone path to the shed where the feral grey stripped cat waited for me to dish out some Friskies. His name was Hugo, like the orphan in the movie. When he came to us, he was small and thin, scared and missing the top quarter of one ear. We named him Hugo, not sure if he was a girl or a boy. Once he arrived, he never left. He had a warm shed with a fleece bed, and very few predators. Infrequently a pair of raccoons would ramble by to wash their hands in the bird bath, but he stayed clear of them. Hugo rarely left the shed except at night to look for me, or maybe mice.
As I approached, Hugo greeted me with a chorus of happy mews, followed by defensive and alarming teeth-bared hisses. He paced in a circle looking over his back shoulder every two or three seconds to make sure he would not be attacked. Initially, we worried that he might have a neurological problem, but after months of observing him, he seemed cognitively stable. Hugo seemed to have two predominant emotional responses: hunger and fear. He expressed them in an alternating current, one prompting the other. I did not take his spitting hisses personally, because they seemed only to be a survival mechanism. Hugo had never let me pick him up, and I wondered if he ever would.
Back in the house, I ditched the umbrella in the hall and made my way into the den. I was time to read about this Hedy Lamarr. I flipped open the wafer thin steel case of my laptop, opened the attachment from Heather, and read the unexpected.
It turned out that Hedy was the most beautiful face that ever stood in front of a movie camera. She came after Garbo and before Elizabeth Taylor, and was heralded as the most glamorous woman of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the most forgotten. Her movies, with titles such as “Dishonored Lady,” and “Lady of the Tropics,” were MGM mill films. Lots of sophisticated people, in dashing clothes, in exotic locations, with very little story. One columnist named Elena Binckley wrote of her, “One doesn’t really notice if she can act – she’s that beautiful!”
The story that Heather had sent me had appeared in a magazine usually reserved for IPO announcements, blog outtakes, and blurbs about the next big technology fad. It was one of those short-attention span magazines that captured eyeballs with color and layout features but rarely contained any serious content. I did not expect to read about a dead actress in it, but Heather had sent me a story good enough to be in Vanity Fair.
Hedy was born into a wealthy family in Vienna, but had fled under cloak of night when her husband, a munitions magnate had started to stock the Nazis. She took her jewels, drugged her maid and stole her clothes, and snuck out during a dinner party. Now that’s the way to leave, I thought. She arranged to run into Louis B. Mayer on the Normandie super cruise liner sailing from France to New York, and before they disembarked she had a seven year contract with the studio.
Besides being heralded in Hollywood as the most gorgeous in the land of dazzling gorgeous people, Hedy was a mathematical genius who invented something that she hoped would help the Americans win the war. Something that no other entertainer has ever matched: United States patent 2,292,387. “An invention for a secret communication system involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies.” Otherwise referred to as frequency-hopping. The very thing that makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communication possible.
I brought up the actual patent with the USPTO and a layman’s explanation of frequency hopping. I went back and forth between a New York Times article, the patent, the paper on dynamic frequency spread-spectrum hopping and the Hedy Lamarr fansite. I looked at black and white headshots and wondered if she ever understood the scope of her creation. Hedy had invented anti-jamming radio control technology for torpedoes using constantly changing frequencies in a pre-arranged pattern, like notes in a song. The patent was rediscovered in the 1950’s and forms the basis for almost all of today’s wireless technologies from digital cell phones to satellite communications.
It was late but I decided to call my sister, Camille. She was a patent litigator at some monolithic law firm in Century City, the name of which was always changing and which I simply referred to as Dewy, Cheatum and Howe. I wanted to know if she had ever had any cases involving Hedy’s patent. I dialed Camille’s number from my landline as I tried to understand the concept of high-speed radio signals passing in the air. I heard two rings and then a husky voice.
“Allo? Who eez dis?
It was my mother. I had called her by accident. I stood at mental attention and struggled to find a good reason for waking her.
“Hi, Mom.” I said.
“Oh, it’s you Thais,” she replied with an unexpected lightness. “Its good to hear your voice.” She was sincere.
“Sorry to bother you at this late hour.”
“No bother at all. I am in bed with Balzac.” Her voice trailed off. Balzac was her fluffy white dog. A constant companion and an inveterate barker that made conversation sometimes difficult. There was nothing that Balzac did not have an opinion about. The dog was aptly named.
“I thought maybe I would drive up to Burlingame tomorrow. Maybe we could meet at Starbucks?
“Non,” she said without any heat behind it. “Je detest. Starbucks burns the beans and you know how that makes me….”
I forgot how she disliked Starbucks. The commercialization of experience she said. “Okay. La Boulangerie then?
“Yes. They have good bread.”
“I’ll meet you there at nine?”
“Zounds good to me.” She said, then continued, “Eez that why you called?
I thought a moment. Heddy would have been MGM’s biggest star after Garbo during the war, but my mother would been young when they were releases. Heddy’s movies were not considered classics but I wondered what people thought of her in her day.
“Mom, did you ever see Hedy Lamarr in a film?” I asked.
“Oh, Yes. I zaw her in Algiers. The first movie she ever made. My family was visiting couzans in Rabat in the summer of 52 maybe 53. There was an outdoor theater set up on a patio with wooden chairs. We were all very excited to see an American movie. We had heard so much about her.”
I was amazed at my mother’s ability to recall. 50 year old Memories were stories that happened yesterday for her.
“The summer evening was warm and we waited with great anticipation in the dark to see her face. The projector came alive and threw a shadowed image on a white stucco wall. Then suddenly she turned her face to the camera and everyone gasped. Her beauty literally took one’s breath away.”
“How come you have never told me this story before?” I asked.
“You never asked.”
“There is so much about your life that I know nothing about.”
“It’s that way for all of us, I’m afraid. Life happens faster than you can retell it.”
“It’s nice to think of you at 12 years old sitting under the stars and watching a movie on a wall.” I said.
“Ah, eet was zuch a horrible movie really. Dreadful. But we laughed and laughed because it was nothing like Algiers. And the memory of her face is vivid.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Thank you for the pleasant memory. A la prochaine.” And she hung up.
I waited at the café for my mother, who was uncharacteristically late, and drank three cups of coffee while thinking of Hedy and how we all die without ever realizing the scope of our inventions or being able to retell our stories as fast as they came tumbling out. Then it struck me that my mother was probably dead because she was never late, and that I would never see her again. As panic rose in my chest, and I searched my purse for my damn phone, she rushed through the door holding her fluffy white dog defying all laws about animals in public eating establishments. She was angry at me because I had picked a location where there simply was no parking.
“Why didn’t you call me,” I asked. “I was worried.”
She was as silent as a stone woman. Then went on the offensive, “You want me to go?” Balzac glared at me with menace. Patrons were starting to look at us now. Wondering how this drama would resolve. I could see it in their eyes. The young man behind the counter looked like he might dive for cover as if a gunslinger had just walked through swinging half-doors.
“Can I get your dog some water,” I responded trying my best to diffuse a potentially atomic moment.
“Bein sur,” she said as she sat down and smoothed out her hair.
I looked back over my shoulder at her and saw a woman who I had known my whole life and who I barely knew at all.
Jennifer Hagan is a writer living in California.