November 3, 2013

Crank Call Karmic Whiplash


Can’t say I’ve ever cared much for telephones, in all likelihood because I’ve never much cared for talking to people. So I’m hard-pressed to say whether that does or doesn’t explain a long history of making crank calls to strangers.

            Maybe “crank calls” isn’t exactly the right word, but I’m not sure what the right word would be. Also, I’m not sure what you call it when you fuck with strangers (telemarketers and the like) who call you at home. That’s something to ponder, because in recent years that’s mostly the type I’ve been involved in. But maybe I’ll get back to that some other time.

            When I first started making crank calls back in junior high, things were pretty mild. I called local contractors and asked if they could put an addition on the back of my house. When they assured me they could, I then added the stipulation that the addition be built in four dimensions (it was a trick question of course. With time being the fourth dimension there’d be no way to build an addition without it). When I saw particularly annoying infomercials on TV, I’d call the toll-free number and ask a series of increasingly absurd questions about the product they were hawking, like “could I scrub my ass with this vinyl repair kit?” or “will these needlepoint designs increase my gas mileage?” Yeah, I was not only a smartass, I was a geek, too.

            By the time I reached high school I’d come to realize that an awful lot of people out there had absolutely no sense of humor. Making these calls started to feel like a useless waste of time. If the victim was only going to respond with confused, dumb silence where was the fun in that?

            Also around this same time I was becoming a very angry kid. I hated everyone and everything and wanted to burn the whole fucker down. Fortunately or unfortunately this developing attitude problem coincided with reaching that age when military recruiters started calling to ask me if I’d thought about my future plans. Instead of politely telling them to fuck off, I started arguing anarchist politics with them. It could go on a surprisingly long time, and a number of these guys were game for the debate. Inevitably though they eventually hung up, usually after muttering something like “So you wanna live in Moscow, do ya?” I remember another time, after seeing an infomercial (I was fascinated by infomercial culture) in which some self-help guru was touting her new self-published book about how the human mind really works. Having just discovered classical psychology, I called the number on the screen and began screaming about Freud to the poor schlub on the other end, telling him the woman he was working for was a moron. After a few minutes of my shrill adolescent haranguing he sounded sad and broken, likely wondering why he ever took that job in the first place when he should really be an architect. “Jeeze, buddy,” he said. “It’s just a stupid commercial.”

            Shortly after arriving at the University of Chicago, however, I realized this was all child’s play. Crank calls could be an art form.

            It was a time long before cell phones, and given that phones weren’t allowed in the rooms in my dorm, we were all dependent on the pay phones on each floor. Nobody had that many quarters, especially considering most of the calls we had to make were long distance, so we were also dependent on stolen corporate phone cards. Stolen corporate phone cards were extraordinarily easy to come by back then, everyone it seemed had a list of 10 or 12 numbers to work from, and this opened up a whole new world of hijinks.

            I recall sitting in the hallway with a half dozen others one night, all of us watching in anticipation as another student dialed the phone. He was fluent in Italian and extremely well-versed in the subtleties of rigorous Catholic dogma. I’m not sure where he came across the Vatican’s phone number, but he did. Over the course of the next forty-five minutes he worked his way up the line, from laymen to bishops and archbishops to cardinals, apparently saying all the right things and answering their questions correctly, all with the simple goal of getting the Pope on the phone. Getting to the Pope was, it seems, akin to meeting Elvis that way; you needed to successfully navigate your way through all his underlings first. I don’t think there was even any big joke in mind—it was funny enough to imagine the Pope on the phone. More than anything, it was kind of like a video game in that the fun of it was in the challenge of working your way through all the increasingly difficult levels to see if you could reach the top. Each time he conned his way past another suspicious priest, he pumped his fist in the air.

            Alas, though, two Vatican officials shy of the Pope, he got tripped up somehow and they hung up on him. I’m not sure if he ever tried again or if he ever made it all the way to His Holiness, but he was nevertheless an inspiration.

            A couple of years later in Madison, well, Grinch and I made more prank calls than we can recall. It was simply what we did at three a.m. when we weren’t doing anything else. The one that still makes me laugh the hardest arose in response to a local newspaper ad from a man in central Wisconsin who was offering “top dollar for crippled cattle.” This same man made the egregious mistake of closing his ad with his phone number and the suggestion that anyone with crippled cattle “call collect any time.”

            Inspired by a man who pushed the Moral Majority to the edge of bankruptcy after placing thousands of calls to their toll-free number, we soon graduated from simple prank calls to telephone terrorism targeting evil corporations. Those calls could range from the lighthearted (I believe I’ve written about our countless calls to Litton’s weapons division) to vicious and effective bomb threats which, unfortunately, were made from my phone.

            Along the way, though, we discovered an important lesson that would come back to haunt me later. A favorite trick for a bored afternoon involved taking turns phoning local call-in shows, especially those featuring guests we found annoying for one reason or another.

            It went like this. First Grinch would call and ask a long, rambling, and absolutely irrelevant question with a lot of asides and unnecessary details. Then I’d call and flush the toilet. Then Grinch would call and, if it was a Christian show, tell another long and filthy story about his life prior to salvation. Then I’d call to respond to Grinch’s call.

            And so forth. Believe you me, they didn’t have the kind of screeners back then they do now.

            Here’s the trick, though. After a while of this nonsense, other listeners catch the buzz and start phoning in, armed with their own foolishness. Before you know it, the show is a complete shambles. No real callers can get through with their serious, legitimate questions and comments because the cranks are clogging all the lines. It really is like a charmingly antisocial contagion, and how I wish I still had the tapes we made of these shows in free fall.

            Well, we had our fun and I pretty much forgot about it until a decade later, when I was on a book tour and appearing on my first call-in show. It was something I’d been dreading simply because I don’t give a damn what people have to say about anything. It was early, I was hung over, and I was sitting on the floor of a Baltimore Comfort Inn. I was sitting on the floor because it was a non-smoking room and I figured if I left the fan on in the bathroom and blew the smoke straight in there, I wouldn’t get busted. The floor was the easiest place to do that while on the phone.

            Anyway, even though I was in Baltimore I was doing a show on Wisconsin Public Radio. Talked to the host for the first twenty minutes and that was fine. Then for the last forty, she opened up the phone lines to any interested callers. When she did that, though, all the lines were dark. No one at all was calling. It put us both in an extremely awkward position. So we chatted uncomfortably some more, and finally someone called in.

            This first caller told a cripple joke and hung up (I swear it wasn’t Grinch). Then someone else called in and told another cripple joke. Then I told a cripple joke myself. Suddenly all the lines blinked to life with someone wanting to tell a cripple joke. Then an old man called and started telling the story of his disabled wife who’d died a couple of weeks earlier. He didn’t get far into the story before he broke down sobbing and hung up. Then some awful cow I’d gone to high school with called to ask if I remembered her. None of this, it occurred to me, was selling any books. Then more cripple jokes, followed by someone else I hated in high school. Then someone else called and said simply, “Hi!” He didn’t say anything else.

            I thought about it for a moment, then replied, “Hi Dad.”

            “Hey, how’re ya doin’?”

            “I’m fine, Dad. But, see, I’m on the radio now.”

            “I know! Your mom and I are listening.”

            “That’s great, Dad, but—”

            “Hey, we’re gonna see you in a couple days.”

            “You sure are. I’m looking forward to it, but like I said at the moment I’m—”

            “So how are things going?”

            I just gave up at that point. “Oh, things are fine, really. How are you and mom doing?”

            “Oh, we’re doin’ great! Well, I should probably get off the line. Just wanted to say hi.”

            “Thanks, Dad. Be sure and say hi to Mom for me.”

            As I sat there on that hotel room floor, I could feel the show collapsing into dust the same way Grinch and I destroyed radio shows back in Madison. Hoo boy. I wanted to apologize to the host and explain the karmic backlash. At the same time I vowed I would never again do a call-in show. It’s just asking for trouble.

            Three days later I was making a stop in Madison and was doing yet another show, this one not a call-in, but it was to be recorded at the Wisconsin Public Radio studios. As I waited in the lobby, the host of that first show tracked me down and cornered me. I was expecting the usual tongue-lashing, but instead she seemed almost giddy. Fucking NPR hippies.

            “That,” she said. “Was the greatest show I’ve ever hosted! I have to meet your dad sometime!”


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.