On the same page, but with a wrong number

DAN RODRICKS

June 22, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

The phone rang around 10 o'clock. I'd just returned home fo the night.

"Who's this?" the voice on the other end demanded.

"What do you mean, who's this?" I shot back. "Who're you?"

"You paged me, man."

"No, I didn't page you. You must have the wrong number."

"You sure you didn't page me?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. I didn't page you. OK?"

"OK."

End of conversation.

"That's been happening all night," my wife said.

It comes and goes, the calls from an anonymous young man answering a page. We get them in spurts -- about twice a year -- and sometimes the spurts last several days. The explanation is simple: Someone enters the wrong number -- my number -- after dialing a young man's pager. When the young man returns the page, the phone rings in my house. And we get annoyed, especially when the phone rings more than once within a few minutes, which is what happened Friday night.

"You page me?" the same voice snapped. He sounded as though he were in his late teens or early 20s.

"No," I snapped back, "you just called here. I didn't page you!"

The caller cursed me, loudly and angrily.

"What?" I said, stunned.

"You white?" the called asked.

"What?" I said again. "What's the matter with you? Why're you talking to me like that?"

"You're not a brother, are you?"

"What difference does that make? Why'd you use that curse word?"

"You're white, aren't you?"

"Why," I persisted for some reason still lost on me, "would you use that word? That's an ugly profanity, and you don't even know me."

When I get these calls from young men -- especially at night -- I make the assumption I'll bet everyone would make: drugs. A young man answering a page; isn't he simply a drug courier staying in touch with his customers? That's the conventional assumption, isn't it?

You might think this is a stretch, but getting caught in a young man's page network is almost like stumbling across a drug deal in progress. Maybe it's prejudicial to make this assumption -- that when young men use a pager they are probably dealing drugs -- but cops laugh if you assume anything else. Is it possible that a young man might need a pager for a legitimate job and that someone, including his employer, might enter the return number incorrectly?

I guess it's possible.

But I would be lying if I said the thought that I was talking to a drug dealer did not cross my mind.

"Are you a lawyer?" he asked.

"No."

"What're you? A preacher?"

"No. . .It doesn't make any difference what I am. You shouldn't go around saying things like that to people you don't even know."

My wife was standing 10 feet away, astonished that I was still on the phone and having this conversation. I was just as astonished.

For a moment, I let go of my prejudices about drugs and pagers. I listened to this voice and I heard in it a youth wasted in anger. I guess I wanted to correct the guy's prejudices.

Remarkably, he kept listening. I kept talking, kept chastising this guy for using bad language -- for hating me without knowing me. As I spoke, he seemed to soften.

"You know, man," he said. "That's the way I talk. . .Are you white?"

"Yeah, I'm white. What's that got to do with anything?"

"'Cause you sound like you are."

I kept thinking: Had I encountered this guy on the street, I probably would never have spoken to him. Had our paths crossed and had the crossing been unpleasant, due to some perceived slight or rude behavior, I probably would have avoided exchanging words altogether. The phone tends to give you bravado.

"Hey, look," I said.

"What?"

"Forget this black-white stuff. Someone obviously is paging you and leaving the wrong number, and they're giving you my number. So if that happens again, just ignore it. Got it? It's pretty simple, right?"

"You're OK, man. I'm sorry, man."

"That's OK. It would bug me, too -- someone kept paging me with the wrong number."

"OK, good night, man."

"Take it easy."

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