Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wrong Numbers

How come when a wrong number calls, the person on the other end is always a weirdo?

We get answering machine messages from callers prattling on about church functions or who sound like they're trying to make a drug deal. Sometimes I call back to let them know they didn’t reach the right place. The last time I did that, it had been an androgynous voice leaving a flirtatious communiqué for a love interest. I put myself in this person’s position and thought if I'd left that message and gotten no response, I'd pine for a week. So I called back. “Just letting you know you got a wrong number,” I said. And the reply was, “Would you go out with me anyway?”

Is it wrong that I gave him the number of a single friend?

A wrong number will often ask if someone with some indistinct-sounding name like “Hmbuh” is there. The name will be so indecipherable that I’ll wonder, wait, maybe I really do live with this “Hmbuh” person. This might not be a wrong number after all.

Of course, as I relay that I can’t help the guy, he invariably hangs up in my mid-sentence. Then he invariably makes the brainiac move of hitting "Redial" to try again to reach his intended party. The second time around I’ll plan to point out his mistake by telling him my phone number as quickly as an auctioneer so he won’t possibly have a chance to hang up on – damn!

That's ok, I wasn't particularly in the mood for his abject disbelief when my number turns out to be the same one he has in front of him and I'm still not Hmbuh.

When I dial wrong numbers myself, I swear they're often answered by people who haven't picked up a phone in thirty years. They seem not only appalled that I would ask to speak to someone they've never heard of, but that I would be speaking to them through this newfangled device in the first place. Just before they hang up they're thinking, look at that, push buttons. What is this anachronistic abyss I keep dialing into?

I once heard a story of a married couple who met when he accidentally dialed her number one night. Apparently she was a wrong number who he soon enough saw in a hot little number, and before he knew it, his number was up.

To say goodbye or not to say goodbye to a wrong number – now this is enough to keep me awake on alternate Thursdays. Somehow "goodbye" seems too intimate. I feel I'm supposed to just hang up after our exchange, just like important people always do in TV and movies. Ever notice that? Scripts never have cops, lawyers, execs, moguls, or hit men say anything like, "ok, thanks so much, goodbye, take care now." Their sign off is always something like, "Not if he kills you first." There must only be so much collective time allocated to phone goodbyes in the world, and all around you new lovers are spending the last twenty minutes of every phone conversation saying goodbye, sometimes calling back to say goodbye yet again, because the first goodbye wasn't good enough.

Let it be known, if you've ever called my house by accident, and I said, "Sorry, wrong number," the truth is, I wasn't really sorry at all. I was really annoyed that I interrupted what I was doing to answer the phone. I probably felt that you should make this up to me somehow, and am still holding this against you, especially if you called my cell phone and cost me minutes.

There should be a penalty system that'll whip everyone, including myself, into much better dialing shape. You're allowed so many wrong numbers and that's it. After that, your phone privileges are taken away. You'll have to stick to e-mail, until you manage to terrorize people through that medium as well. Perhaps addressing the wrong number epidemic should be first on Obama's agenda these days. It's closely related to health care – the mental kind anyway – because too many wrong numbers are enough to put anyone in the psych ward. If you end up there, be sure to say hello to me and Hmbuh.