For Whom the Bell Tolls


September 09, 1992|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Census Bureau tells us that the poverty level in America is at its highest since 1964. It's interesting to have government statistics on such things, but I don't really need them.

You see, I have a listed home telephone number. And I learn from it several times a day something of the magnitude of Americans' economic suffering and desperation, not just among the poor but among those who were banking the fat of the land only a couple of years ago.

My phone rang Wednesday. A man with a strong, official voice determined that I was ''Mr. Rowan'' and said: ''I have an important call; I'll put you right through.'' I anticipated a word from President Bush, or Jim Baker, or even Saddam Hussein, when another male voice said: ''Hi, Mr. Rowan, I'm from Lehman Brothers in New York and I have a great offering for you.''

''This 'important call' I am not interested in,'' I said and hung up, angry over a stock broker's ruse.

Within the hour I answered a call from a guy who sounded more familiar than my brother. ''Carl, how 'ya doing?''

''Who's this?'' I inquired.

''I'm Joe from Prudential Securities.''

''You're selling stocks and bonds, and I'm not interested.''

''I'm not selling anything. This is just a get-acquainted call, after which I'll send you my card.''

''Don't waste your card.''

Later came a call from a guy who had mailed me a health-care plan that was supposed to enrich us both. He was offended that he hadn't heard from me.

''I haven't read it, never will read it, and please do not call my home again,'' I said.

''Hell, I'll call you tomorrow,'' he said in surly anger, and when I retorted somewhat intemperately, he added: ''Carl, you have an attitude problem.''

I take these calls from the erstwhile ''wonder boys'' of Wall Street, note their games, listen to their effrontery, and my first observation is that they all have purchased ''sucker lists'' with my name on them.

My second thought is about all the telephone calls that come in between those from the big money hustlers: a woman heading a family of three children who has lost her job at age 50 and wants me to help pay for her discrimination lawsuit against her old employer; the 26-year-old woman who says she is destitute, jobless because she refused to deliver sexual favors; the 55-year-old man who says he has been laid off and is jobless for the first time in his life, and is ashamed to face his wife in the morning or his children at night. He wants to know where to turn. The winner of a Project Excellence scholarship who says he'll have to drop out of one of America's most prestigious -- and costly -- universities if he can't find $5,000 in financial aid.

Several times a day I want to rip from the wall that phone with the listed number, especially when I'm at the computer on a critical deadline and a caller tells me I'm ''rude'' not to give 20 minutes to explain his economic anguish.

''Goddammit, I listen to you for 30 minutes on TV every week,'' one man said. ''Can't you listen to me for 10 or 20 minutes?''

But I'll never rip out that phone, or take my home phone number out of the public pages, because these calls -- however intrusive or exasperating -- tell me the truth about the hopes and pains of the American people long before I get any report from the Census Bureau or any other agency of government.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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