I hate waiting for phone calls. I missed a call this morning for a medical appointment I’m anxious about. I called back and left a message, but I’m still waiting.

It reminds me of my days as a newspaper reporter, landline days when whatever story I was working on was totally dependent upon a return phone call from a source, typically somebody important who was busy and had better things to do than answer whatever questions I might have about something he or she didn’t want to talk about in the first place.

I’d wait sometimes for hours, knowing that I’d probably only get one chance to answer; it will come as no surprise that phone calls from reporters are not often welcome, and often never returned. I missed my sister’s graduation waiting for a call that never came.

Waiting for phone calls then meant having pen and paper at hand, avoiding anything that would take you away from the phone: going to the store, taking the garbage out, having a shower, even bathroom breaks. Odds are, that’s when the call would come. I remember going to bed, a list of questions on the floor beside me, in case of a late-night call.

When I was trying to eke out a living as a freelancer, even more dependent on those calls than I’d been as a staff reporter, I had to share the landline with my roommates, one of whom got a lot of calls and spent hours on the phone, tying up the line. It would kill me.

The one time I didn’t want a source to call me back, he did, in the middle of the night. I was working as a sportswriter for a Vancouver daily. I arrived for a copy-editing shift that evening, and the sports editor told me Muhammad Ali was in town for a TV interview, and maybe I could call him up for an interview. As much as I admired Ali, and would normally have loved to talk to him, he had been retired a long time and I’d lost track of what he was up to, and hence, what I would talk to him about. This was pre-Internet, pre-Google days, so I had no way to get up to speed.

I make a token call to a sportscaster I knew at the TV station, and asked if he happened to bump into the champ in the hallway, would he get him to call me. Confident, of course, that this would never happen.

My shift ended about midnight, and a few of us went for beers at the press club across the road. I got home a while later, went straight to bed, and fell fast asleep. About two or three in the morning, my phone rang, and the caller said he was Ali, returning my call. Rather dopey from being woken up, I first thought it was a practical joke. How, after all, would Ali have my home number, and why would one of the most famous athletes in the world be calling a reporter he’d never heard of, who worked for a newspaper he’d probably never heard of, in the middle of the night?

After some hesitant talk on my part, I recognized Ali’s voice, and he explained how he’d looked up my number – it was listed, after all. I asked him if we could meet the next morning, but he was catching an early-morning flight out of town. Rather than get dressed then and there and rush to wherever he happened to be, as I would have done if I’d been thinking straight, I said instead, too bad, maybe next time, thanks for calling, have a good night. Doh!

It must be a lot easier now being a reporter with a cell phone. You can do some research, texting, never having to worry that you’ll miss the call. You can be mobile, and carry on with other duties while waiting, like going to the bathroom.

Unless, like I did this morning, you inadvertently turn off the ringer. Oops.