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The Lost Art of the Crank Call

In these times of strife and tumult, I lament the fact that my own children are growing up in a world where caller ID has effectively destroyed the art of the prank phone call.

We called them “crank calls,” although “prank” is a more accurate but less alliterative description. I began with the old standards: “Is your refrigerator running?” and “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” (It was years later when I finally learned that Prince Albert is a chewing tobacco. This call was usually less than successful, but crank call etiquette demanded that you at least make the attempt.)

I was satisfied with my Prince Albert-level crank skills until about the 6th grade, when I met An Esteemed Colleague who showed me the true potential for the havoc you could wreak with a simple phone call. Under his expert tutelage, I helped my My Esteemed Colleague hound an innocent man into utter madness, ultimately destroying him – or, at least, forcing him to change his phone number.

His crime? He answered the phone with a cheerful “Howwwwdy!” It was funny.

We called him Joe Howdy. We never spoke when we called, although My Esteemed Colleague once taped Joe Howdy and played his own words back to him, so that he could say “Howwwdy!” to himself. High comedy. When Joe finally changed his number after we had called him umpteen times and hung up, we combed the phone book trying to find out what the new number was. The problem was that he wasn’t listed as Joe Howdy, so we had to find his number, match it with his real name, and then call information to find out what it was. We even tried calling information to backwards engineer the process, yet no operator was willing to tell us the name of a person if we could only provide a phone number. We’re lucky we weren’t slapped with a restraining order.

Our other methods were less harassing. My Esteemed Colleague would call people and tell them there was a problem with their phone system and demand that they scream their phone numbers into the receiver to calibrate the sound. Other times, he would call and ask if the household received their gift subscription to Reader’s Digest. If they hadn’t, My Esteemed Colleague would profusely apologize. Then, to make sure they didn’t miss out on the latest issue, he would read it to them over the phone until they got bored and hung up.

As phone technology improved, so did the crank calling methods. Conference calling allowed us to call two random people simultaneously and listen in as they argued between themselves, sometimes fiercely, as to who called whom. This didn’t work very often, because it required both parties to answer the phone at almost exactly the same time. But when it did work, boy howdy! (Not to be confused with “Joe Howdy.”)

You would think that puberty would have taken care of the crank call fetish, but it only expanded our ambitions – and My Esteemed Colleague was always several steps ahead of me. He once called right-wing loon Wally George’s talk show to expound upon the “wheat substitute” called “hosla” being developed by UCLA scientists. George hung up on him quickly, but only after berating him mightily and triggering a loud explosion sound over the radio.

He later called a radio program called Loveline to complain about his girlfriend, who was too “stiff” and “unyielding.” He kept the pseudo-psychologists on the phone for a solid two or three minutes before confessing that his girlfriend was, in fact, a cardboard box. He then yelled the word “Scrotum!!!” into the phone, but the tape delay dumped it before it got on the air.

When I went to USC and he went to Dartmouth, we had limited resources to speak to each other, because long distance calls were expensive, and the Internet was only a crazy dream. So, as a cheap means of communication and/or entertainment, he would call me collect every so often, but never with his own name. Back then, collect calls weren’t automated, so I would receive a call from an operator saying something like “Collect call from “Rat In A Box Nuggets,” will you accept?” As we had arranged in advance, I would always decline, but I’d do so with a chuckle. My favorite was the collect call I received from “Frog Hopkins Joe Joe Joe Joe.” Ahhh, good times. Those are joys my own children will never know.

I shouldn’t complain. The Internet allows a new outlet for anonymous stupidity, and it’s one I have used to great effect. Still, even the Internet has gotten more sophisticated. Once upon a time, my sister used to go into lesbian chat rooms on AOL and write stuff like “I think women should stay home and take orders from men,” and then sit back and watch the flames commence. Now such boorishness gets ignored or filtered out. Yet, incredibly, there are still ways to annoy, to bother, and to waste time. As one door closes, another door opens.

It’s just tragic that, on the telephone, Prince Albert has finally been let out of his can.

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