Friday, December 26, 2008

Another in a long line of reasons why I don't particularly like talking on the phone

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Today, the day after Christmas, I spent the early morning at work, at the newspaper. Around 5 a.m., I had the following phone conversation, or something very close to it:

ME: Hello?

MAN: You may think this is strange or what have you...but could you tell me what day it is today?

ME: It's Friday.

MAN: [snorting] Fridee. So you're the fourth person to tell me today is Fridee.

ME: It is.

MAN: [curtly] I don't know why I should believe that. I went to work on Mondee, I went to work on Tuesdee, went home, and now you're saying it's Fridee. I don't think that's right.

ME: Um, it is. It's Friday, December 26th.

MAN: And you're the second person to tell me today is the 26th.

Then there was an awful, creepy silence for more than half a minute while both of us sat there, breathing. I waited to see how long this would last. It wasn't possible to tell what was happening on his end of the phone. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore.

ME: Hello?

MAN: Yeah?

ME: Are you all right?

MAN: So you're saying it's Fridee?

ME: Yes, it's Friday the 26th.

MAN: You're saying you had your merry Christmas -- what, yesterdee?

ME: Yes. With the tree and the presents and everything.

MAN: [sighing] I think you're sending me to work on Christmas when I shouldn't be going in -- but whatever. All righty.

Then he hung up.

Answering the phone at a newspaper when you work odd hours is a depressing aspect of the job, sort of like working a Samaritans hotline that also answers drunk people's trivia questions. I probably deal with it a lot more than some other editors, because I work the dark hours, when weird people do weird things, and because I tend not to shoo people off the phone line even when they're shouting obscenities or nonsense into it. I imagine people like this must call the newspaper because a newspaper is almost like an authority figure, but it's not the cops or the government. We have something like power -- not me, really, but I know someone who does.

So at least every few months, I answer the phone and wind up having disturbing conversations with people. Some are with people who are very clearly, diagnosably, crazy. I'm not being flippant -- I mean insane and untreated. Some of them probably have Alzheimer's and still know how to operate the phone but not what to do with it. I have no idea how to handle them and wait until there's a natural decrescendo in the conversation so I can tell them so long, thanks for calling.

I sometimes get phone calls from people who are not entirely crazy, but mostly desperate and painfully lonesome, steeped in the kind of boredom that drives people to throw themselves nakedly at the nearest stranger -- old people who have talked to me for half an hour or more for no reason about their grandchildren in Virginia or their war service or about listening to Cab Calloway records, or this lady who has started calling every so often lately, who's a nurse, who works early mornings and who makes toast (I thought I heard a toaster pop once) and who is 45 or 47 or something, and asks how the Bruins did, then talks to me for 20 minutes about how she used to watch games when Bobby Orr was playing, which I wouldn't've because I sound young -- or who wants to know the Megabucks numbers, then engages me in a conversation about how she plays her daughter's birthday and describes what she'd do with the money if she got it.

Other callers are temporarily crazy. They call in the same white-hot rage that I imagine perfectly normal people have when they snap and murder someone, and they unload streams of profanity and ugliness, furious about things I can't ever picture someone being furious about. It's simply not a symptom of sanity to scream at a stranger for 25 minutes about someone on your block habitually parking a shade too close to a fire hydrant -- and then when I suggest calling the police, telling me I'm an idiot because the police haven't cared so far. Why at half-past 1 at night? What possessed that guy to call right then? And what did he expect the newspaper to do, exactly? Shine a light on the person's parking misdeeds? Most of these people burn out after a while then, strangely, end up being polite, and thank me no matter what I've said, even if it was just a periodic "um" to let them know they weren't yelling into a dead phone. They just needed to scream at someone for some reason. I suppose it's better to yell at me than someone they might actually offend.

Other people, I have no idea what's going on. Like today's guy. I've had days where I wake up hazy as to whether it's Tuesday or Wednesday, but I've never needed to make four phone calls to strangers to sort it out. This guy didn't sound crazy, temporarily or permanently, and didn't seem drunk -- just had no idea what day it was. Did he miss Christmas? Seriously? Did he suffer a blow to the head? Was he in a coma for two days, or was it just a regular sleep the whole time? I sometimes have anxiety dreams where I'm too busy or distracted and accidentally miss Christmas or my wife's birthday -- is that what happened here? Or was he just wasted the whole time?

In the spirit of the season I'd like to think he was visited by three spirits who showed him his past, present, and future, and he woke up discombobulated, unsure if he was supposed to give all his money away. But he's probably just got dementia.


Andrew Whitacre said...

Hey, at least now after writing this post, you've come up with a series of questions you can ask the next time a crazy person calls!

New England Bites said...

I love when you're talking to someone and there is a pause. About five seconds later, either yourself or the other person says, "Hello?" It's like we're checking to make sure the person on the other end didn't go into a coma. I think we're all so used to cell phones dying in the middle of calls that we're always on guard - even when we're on a landline.

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