March 6, 2011

Crank Calls


In the midst of the recent popular uprising in Wisconsin (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d type), I received a note from Grinch. In it, he outlined his plan for what we could’ve done (if we still lived in Madison) to bring this whole mess to a swift conclusion. I won’t lay out his whole plan here, as it was fairly elaborate. Let’s just say it involved a large number of machetes.

            We never used any machetes that I can recall back in those fuzzy old days, though you could pick one up for six dollars at the local army surplus store. There was an axe involved one time, a few knives and metal pipes at others, but no machetes. Nevertheless by the time we left Madison our public pranks were growing dangerously hard to control—though that’s the way we wanted it. We’d set the ball rolling, then step back and watch. Or just step back and go do something else.

            As big and involved as things got near the end, they’d started out very simple. I think the first night we hung out together we started making crank calls at three a.m. I still don’t know what that guy was thinking when he took out a newspaper ad offering top dollar for crippled cattle. That he included his home phone number with an invitation to “call collect” was even more mind-boggling.

            Yes, when all else failed and no other ideas came to mind there was always the telephone. Radio stations in Madison generally didn’t have the kind of call screening technology they had in New York or Chicago, so infiltrating a show (and doing so repeatedly) was fairly simple. Between the two of us, Grinch and I could completely destroy a call-in show in twenty minutes or less. The final step in destroying a call-in show came when other listeners started calling in to do the same sorts of things we were doing. Once we heard a stranger speaking in tongues or asking an insane non-sequitor of a question, it was all over—from that point on, it was just going to snowball. All we had to do was sit back and listen to the host’s nervous breakdown.

            Of all the dozens of crank calls we made over the years, I think my favorite took place in the middle of a much larger prank. I don’t recall if we labelled it “telephone terrorism” or someone else did. Whoever it was, the name stuck.

            Now, telephone terrorism referred to a specific kind of crank call. It was the case back in the eighties that when you called a toll-free number, the phone company charged the company you were calling a buck. The longer you stayed on the line, the more the company was charged.

            We were inspired by the case of a man with a modem who programmed his computer to call the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s toll-free number every thirty seconds, day and night, for months. In the end, the monstrous toll-free bills very nearly bankrupted the Moral Majority.

            After that story came out we made our move quickly. It was very easy. See, every major business in the world—even the unashamedly evil ones—had a toll-free number, so we compiled a list. Weapons manufacturers, chemical companies, oil companies and the like. We didn’t really give a shit about what Dow or Honeywell or Union Carbide was doing—we just wanted to fuck things up. And since we would need hundreds if not thousands of people calling in order to be effective, we chose companies we knew would get all those granola munchers around Madison riled up but good.

            We typed up the list and some simple instructions, made a few hundred copies, and started handing them out. The student newspaper made our job much easier by reprinting the list and instructions in the next day’s issue. We didn’t even have to ask—they just went ahead and did it.

            In the end we were written up in Time magazine and as we figured, a law was passed making telephone terrorism a felony.

            Anyway, one day in the midst of all this Grinch and I were sitting around my apartment making calls to assorted companies on the list. Using my phone wasn’t terribly wise in retrospect, but there you go. Of them all, the one that still makes me laugh much too hard was made to the toll-free number of Litton’s weapons division. (Yes, the weapons division had its own toll-free number. Think about that for a second. Who was calling them?)

            It’s important to remember also that these were the days before computer-generated voices and automated answering systems. Back then, a real person picked up on the other end.

            Well, that afternoon Grinch dialed the phone and adopted the voice of a very confused, middle-aged foreigner—perhaps a Filipino woman? It was hard to say. I could only hear his end of the conversation, but it went a little something like this.

            “Ah, hallo? . . . eh . . . Lee-tawn? . . . Thees ees Lee-tawn? . . . Yes! Hallo! Ah, I . . .  haff . . . eh . . . I haff microwafe . . . uffen! . . . And . . . ah . . . eet no work! . . . Yes, I call Lee-tawn . . . ah, Ihaff microwafe . . . uffen! No cook! I . . . eh, poosh button and . . . Yes? Thees ees Lee-tawn..Yes . . . eh . . . You make . . . eh, microwafe uffen? . . . eh . . . Mine no work! . . . Theese ees number of Lee-tawn company? You sell microwafe . . . Yes! That is number I call . . . You help me? . . . Hallo?”

            After the Litton operator hung up without addressing this poor woman’s problem, what choice was there but to call back?

            “Ahh, hallo? Yes, Lee-tawn? . . . Yes, I call Lee-tawn! I haff . . . microwafe uffen! It no work! . . . Yes, I call number of Lee-tawn . . . Yes? Hallo? Yes! I haff Lee-tawn microwafe . . . ”

            Without belaboring the point, this went on for well over an hour, until the operator—apparently there was only one—finally stopped answering the phone. Chump.

            After we got bored with making clever, funny prank calls to large corporations (well we thought they were clever and funny), we just started making plain old bomb threats—again from my apartment phone for some reason.

            Neat thing about the threats was that Grinch knew explosives, and so knew the sort of practical, technical details to drop into a threat that would get it taken seriously.

            But here’s the funny part. After calling in a serious-sounding bomb threat to someone, Grinch and I would just go out and do something else. Grab a beer or see a movie, maybe go to a punk rock show—and never think of the bomb threat again. Five minutes after making it we were on to something else. Meanwhile somewhere in the country the headquarters of some multinational corporation was being evacuated, bomb sniffing dogs were being brought in, and the FBI was investigating.

            Man, I’m so glad they never traced those calls.


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