Friday, March 21, 2008

The Pinocchio Lady


Sometimes I miss the days of making prank phone calls.

When I was between the ages of 10 and 15, give or take a decade or so, I was the diehard crank caller. Generally just harmless fun—you know, of the "I'm lost at the supermarket and I can't find my momma" ilk. Now and again, I made calls that made me feel bad later, such as when I presented myself as "Mother Bell" from radio station WDUM and promised the call recipient ten dollars for saying "hello" when he or she answered the phone. I got a lot of mailing addresses that way, and it grieves me to think that people were once so trusting. Needless to say, they never received a penny, and for this particular sin, I flagellated myself appropriately in later years. Or at least I allowed my wife to.

My favorite, though, was a series of calls I made in the summer and fall of 1973. I was 14 years old and was learning that I had inherited my dad's temper. Unlike Dad, I sometimes enjoyed acting on it and paying back tenfold certain people who offended me.

There was once a woman called the Pinocchio Lady. I found her by misdialing my friend Charles's phone number. When she answered, I thought it was his mother, so I asked for Charles. "Charles?!" exploded a very cranky, high-pitched, nasal voice. "There ain't no Charles here. And don't you ever, ever call this number again."

Ah. A challenge. Well, I called back the number I thought perhaps I had dialed by mistake, and sure enough, that was it. "Oh, it's you again!" she wailed. "I TOLD YOU TO NOT CALL HERE!"

"You sound like you have a really big nose," I said. "Are you the Pinocchio lady?"

"Pinocchio lady? I don't know what that is. You hang up RIGHT NOW and don't you EVER call back here again!"

Guess who called the Pinocchio lady day in and day out for many weeks. Yes, and when I told my friend Charles about this, he happily joined in the fun. We took turns calling and recording them with my little Lloyds cassette tape recorder. Usually, I'd start out pleasant, with something like, "Hello, have I reached the E****'s residence?" When the affirmative reply came, I'd holler, "No, I haven't! I've reached the Pinocchio lady!" One time, I told the poor woman I was going to cut off her long nose with a cross-cut saw, and that was how I learned some of the words that I use today when I'm really peeved.

Finally, one day, a gruff male answered. When I asked if he was the Pinocchio man, he said that he actually wasn't, but that he was going to have the phone tapped so he could find out who we "damned little pests" were. That scared me a little, so I didn't call back for a couple of days.

Eventually, we grew tired of this sport and moved on to calling the parents of kids we didn't like and telling them that their children had stolen some copies of Playboy magazine from the local newsstand and hidden them under their mattresses. (I have no idea how many of them actually got caught with hidden copies of Playboy.)

Over a decade later, when I lived in Chicago, one day, just on a whim, I dialed the Pinocchio lady's number (it was still firmly etched into my memory, and I still remember it to this day), and when Mrs. E****'s familiar voice answered, I almost...almost...followed through with the cruel quip, "Hey, Pinocchio lady. Remember me? I'm out now!"

But I didn't. Some wee smidgen of maturity had taken a bit of the pleasure out of injecting a little misery into some innocent person's life.

If Mrs. E**** is still alive (something tells me she's not, as she sounded not only big-nosed but rather old back in the 70s and 80s), she does have my sincerest apology. I was just a kid doing what kids do, and sometimes that's not so nice.

Of course, there's always the possibility that, on some level, she had as much fun being a Pinocchio lady as we had turning her into one. I rather hope so.

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