One of the most unnerving experiences I can recall, but which actually turned out to be a whole lot of nothing, occurred in the middle of the night on a train bound for Memphis from Chicago. I travelled on the cheap in those days, and usually slept in the observation car, stretched out on the floor on a blanket. But for reasons I can’t remember, that night I slept in coach. My body crammed between the exterior armrests of the two adjoining seats, my sleep was thin and unrestful, hovering around that line that delineates the divide between sleep and wakefulness.
All the winners seem to come out on the Chicago-New Orleans line, and the guy in the seat behind me was a real piece of work. He was about a hundred shades of mean, with a mousey, frightened girlfriend that didn’t say much unless she was spoken to first. Apparently this guy caused some sort of incident on the train–I never knew exactly what it was, and didn’t even find out anything at all had happened until the wee hours of the morning when they came for him.
And so the immense, threatening silhouette of the Amtrak enforcer to which I awoke wasn’t actually looming over me, even although he appeared to be. And not knowing this, it didn’t matter that he was speaking to the other guy when he said in a low, sinister drawl that practically oozed with tobacco juice, “Yew’re in a whole heap uh trouble, boy!”
Sometimes, when some semi-homeless person shoves a clipboard in my face and demands to know if I’m a registered voter, or a perky young alternavista with three semesters of community college asks if I’d like to give money to downtrodden Uruguayan salamander ranchers, I like to have a little fun.
“I do not…eh…speak zee English,” I say, trotting out a German accent I’ve developed for just such an occasion. I hold up my hands and offer a simpering smile.
And yet–invariably, they apologize to me, as if my failure to learn the Conqueror Tongue is somehow their fault. And it is through their apology that I’m able to apply the pièce de résistance.
Before walking off, I throw ‘em a real smile, and say, “There’s no harm done–think nothing of it!”
Those younger folks who have grown up entirely in the age of caller ID have most likely missed out on that beloved adolescent rite of yesteryear, the crank call. As with so many endeavors, the majority of individuals who made crank calls had little or no talent for the calling, and very often resorted to old chestnuts like “Is your refrigerator running?” or slobbery, sexually charged heavy breathing. It’s no wonder that the craft earned such a dismal reputation.
But my friends and I had a special aptitude for crank calls, many times ending the call with our victim not realizing he or she had been cranked, and believing instead that they’d been on the phone with, at best, a moderately disturbed individual, and at worst, a dangerous lunatic.
Our calls ranged from the simple–calling pharmacies to inquire if they sold cannabis (you’d be amazed how many of the people to whom we spoke told us “I’ll have to check with the pharmacist,”) or ringing up pet stores asking for the cheapest puppy (Why the cheapest? Because I’m going to feed it to my python, Hector!). Sometimes I’d pretend to be an evangelist calling to solicit money (I froze up like an amateur and ended the call the one time somebody agreed to send money). Other times we’d call dumps and landfills claiming that due to the nature of our business–which we would not discuss–we were looking for a place to occasionally dump certain waste products, which for safety reasons, were stored in body bags. What we needed, we said, was a guy who could open the gate for us late at night, and who knew how to keep his mouth shut.
My friend Tyrrell made one of the best crank calls I’ve ever heard. His victim was a music store of some kind, Organ Emporium. It went like this:
OE: Organ Emporium.
T: How late are you guys open tonight?
OE: We’re open until 6:00 tonight.
T: Oh, that’s awesome! I’ll be down in an hour.
OE: Great, well we’ll see you–
T: (INTERRUPTING): Wait! Before I come down there, I guess I should at least ask if you guys have a kidney in stock.
OE: I’m sorry?
T: A kidney. I have advanced renal disease, and I need a kidney.
OE: (LONG PAUSE) We…we don’t have kidneys here.
T: But…isn’t this *Organ* Emporium?
OE: Oh…no, no…we sell like piano-organs. Instruments, y’know?
T: (AFTER A LENGTHY PAUSE, VOICE FULL OF TEARS): I hope you know, you were my last hope.