Last month, I received a call from Johnny Carson, a man for whom I was once privileged to work. There was no doubt that it was Johnny because as my iPhone trilled its canned, bluesy theme, the screen lit up with the contact photo I had once assigned him, a characteristic pose I found on a postcard in the Paley Center Gift Shop. He's at his Tonight Show desk, probably early 1980's, wide-lapelled, his forefinger pistol-pointing to his temple in mock suicide. A call from Mr. C was not an everyday event, and even more rare since his death seven years ago. As it turned out, the King of Late Night wasn't phoning from beyond with a riff on Mitt Romney's car elevator -- in fact, as you may have guessed, he wasn't calling at all. It was his nephew Jeff, who now runs the store at Carson productions, one of the phone numbers I'd long ago entered for his uncle.
Which brings me, name-droppingly, and in a roundabout way, to a habit I have -- if repeated inaction can be classified a habit -- of not deleting the dead. Nothing is as certain as death and taxes -- except on my iPhone 4S where the Reaper takes a permanent holiday. Sorry, but I can't do it. I can't press Edit, then Delete Contact. Not when it's, say, mom. Technically, she's gone since 2003, but in my digital directory, passed down over the ensuing years from a once cutting edge Nokia, to a slim Motorola Razr, to a Blackberry Bold, and now, finally, an iPhone, she lives on in her Upper East Side rent-stabilized apartment, at the same phone number, still no email address, cell phone or fax. To delete her would be like a second death. This afterlife is a small victory over the building manager with the Sub-Zero personality who spent years searching for legal pretext to evict her -- she'd been there since 1972 -- so the monthly could be raised to something more comfortably in the six figures. Marilyn wasn't going anywhere, the keys to 7A would have to be pried from her cold, dead hand -- and ultimately they were. When I called to inform the Iceman that she was gone, his proffered "sympathies" were nearly drowned out by the explosive pop of a champagne cork. Well, guess what, pal, she still lives there. Just check my phone.
Uncle Willie died in 2001, at 87 (still in my cell), and Uncle George in 2002, at 90 (same). I've got their email addresses, even if they no longer do. Among his aged cohort, George was an early adopter of digital photography. In his home office he color printed every run-of-the-mill snapshot -- also taken in his home office -- in a convenient 11-by-14 format. When his two brothers checked out, my father, Milt, the youngest of the three, was without family in South Florida to where the boys had all retired. So, at 86, he reluctantly moved to L.A. to be near us. And he hated it. First, he hated it in a condo sublet in the Wilshire corridor. Then he really hated it in assisted living. To each place he schlepped his Dell desktop computer and Lexmark printer, filing email dispatches from the final front to friends he would never see again.
Although he was frustrated by his circa 2006 AT&T flip phone -- retrieving his voice mail was undoable -- the old man had always loved state-of-the-art gadgets. In 1950, in the tiny attic of the Levittown house he'd purchased the year before with $100 down, he cut his own 78 RPM recordings; in 1961, he excitedly brought home a Sony portable reel-to-reel tape deck, and a Sony portable TV that looked as if it might have been created for the Jetsons. In 1968, I informed him of his own father's not unexpected death by reaching him on his mobile car phone on the Long Island Expressway. 1968.
In L.A., he was forever cold. He missed golf, which stenosis made impossible. He missed his pals, his brothers, the warming Florida sun. He missed negotiating Collins Avenue in his red Jetta, in a driving style that, with age, had devolved into a kind of slow-motion drift & weave. Milt had been a dynamic salesman, a jazz enthusiast (his email handle: Miltune@), a gambler who'd won (but, in truth, more often lost) thousands on a roll of the dice, a guy who'd seen Frank, Dean & Sammy at the Sands. He'd been to the mountaintop. Don't give him Bingo. Dead at 88. But he's still in my Contacts, and I'm pleased to report that he has moved back to Apartment 809 at the Bay Club in Aventura, where I know he's a lot happier.
As I finger-scroll my contacts, deceased friends and memories (mental, not digital) slide by: the vivacious Katherine, a screenwriter full of life and righteous rage picketing Fox Studios during the last strike; Mel, always upbeat, a criminal attorney-cum-magician, phoning to announce his latest celebrity client - and could I get them an on-air mention; George, my buddy-since-second-grade, my investment adviser, his mood forever fluctuating with the Dow, both of them taking a major hit in 2008. Big personalities, all. Now residing in a Qualcomm chip in my pocket.
Happily, the living on my call list still outnumbers the dead, but I have two fears. Fear #1 is as the years roll on, the departed will pile up till I'm carting around a tiny memorial wall with a thousand names. Fear #2 (the bigger fear) is that I join the undeleted dead on someone else's phone.