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Talking on the phone with strangers

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

A screenshot of recent calls listing four No Caller ID missed calls.

Last night while watching episodes of Survivor with my pirate crew, my phone lit up that I was getting a call, except it said No Caller ID. I hit the ignore button. They called back. At this point, I showed the No Caller ID screen to Hubs and said, “What am I? A spy?”

If that sounds like the beginning of a scary story, I thought so, too. Because I was torn between answering the call to resolve it and the fear of hearing “You’re life is in danger!” on the other end of the line. I ignored it, and eventually, the calls stopped.

I am no stranger to getting strange phone calls in the night. I just don’t answer them any longer. When I was younger and we used landlines, you answered the phone because you wanted the ringing to stop. You had volunteered to plug a siren into your wall that alerts you that someone needs something from you and you had the option of either answering it or unplugging it. Caller ID was invented in case you wanted to let it ring when someone you did not want to speak with tried to call you – telemarketers, solicitors, and needy cousins. When we were at Hubs' mom’s house, the phone rang and my uninitiated children ran around screaming, “What is that noise?!”

Slone’s joke is, “Brandi, you are the kind of person who talks to wrong number calls.” Except it’s not a joke at all, I have done that. I have chatted with telemarketers and asked them about their jobs. I have asked them their names, whether real or not.

I have also asked wrong numbers who they are looking for and I have tried to figure out if I know them. I grew up in a small town. If someone got a wrong number, sometimes they would ask who they called and if we knew the number of who they were looking for. It was not uncommon at our Flower Shop business for someone we know to call and ask, “Hey! Do y’all know the number for Ronk Funeral Home?” because they had misplaced their phone book.

Once when I was single and lived alone, someone woke me up on a Thursday night because – according to them – they’d met a girl at the bar and she had passed along this number as her own. Maybe I knew the girl. Maybe it was a slipped-digit situation. Either way, they were on my phone asking for a girl who had likely fake-numbered him.

I talked to that guy for a half hour. I gave him a fake name, but we talked about how hard it was to date in our small town. I gave him a buck-up speech about how it was that girl’s loss. Under the guise of my pseudonym, we contemplated why people give out fake information.

The next morning when I recounted my strange story to Slone, she reeled over the fact that I stayed on the phone so long. “Why would you not tell him wrong number and go back to bed?” And the best answer I could come up with was I was curious.

I’m curious about people. At the time, I was a reporter and spent my days calling people, asking them questions – sometimes personal questions – and then publishing what they said in the paper the next day. While I was sick to death by the job – the politics, the meetings, the paperwork, the sameness of it all – at my core, I was still interested in what people had to say. I listened to this guy who sounded a little lonely and just needed someone to talk to.

Over the years I have gotten wrong number voicemail messages from people I wish I could have talked to. During COVID, when we were sheltering in place, I would go for a walk every morning in my neighborhood. And while on those walks, I would listen to a voicemail from someone who had called me in the night from jail. They would leave me these long messages about how they were sorry. And how I was the only person they had left. How they know they had screwed up, and how they always thought they could count on me. They needed me.

I know this was an easy manipulation that I was hearing, but I was not the person they’d probably been manipulating all these years. I was hearing a person whose name I did not know crying on my phone because they were in trouble and had nowhere else to call. And as cheesy as it sounds, I kept thinking about how I wouldn’t want my kids to ever be that lost.

But what the f%* was I supposed to do? I had no name, no information other than his voice saying I’m sorry. And how was I supposed to help? Should I have called the jail and said, “One of your inmates keeps calling me asking for bail money and it’s the wrong number.” Is the person I would speak with exclaim, “Well, hell, that must be Jerry!” No. They would not. I asked everyone in my bubble what I was supposed to do and everyone told me I had to let it go.

I recognize that sometimes I am the only one who is willing to listen. My students sit in my office when we are supposed to be discussing their paper and instead, they’re telling me about the chemistry professor who screwed them over, how their dad won’t pay for their hormones anymore, how they don’t know where they are going to sleep that night. And it’s hard. I am not going to lie. I can’t always help them. I cannot yell at a chemistry teacher, get between a dad and their transitioning teen, or give a student a place to live. All I am really allowed to do is listen and review good comma usage. Also, that energy they just released that makes them feel better is now transferred to me.

But I won’t pretend that I don’t like the process of people opening up to me. I am curious about people in a one-on-one way more than an “according to a study” kind of way.

And my curiosity always gets the best of me.

My No Caller ID person continued to call after my Do Not Disturb was turned on for the night. Five different calls and two voice mails. On the first one, they quickly asked the question, “Did you block me?” On the other, this person gave someone who I think was named Jan, a real down-home cussing because they “knew you were f*%ing that guy”.

An iPhone displaying a Voicemail screen with a transcript of a message.

There is a part of me that wonders what our exchange would have been if I had answered. Would I have told this likely inebriated person they had the wrong number and then chatted with them for a half hour about how they needed to let Jan go? Because the part of me who watches Dateline wonders why this guy went to so much trouble to make sure he was not popping up on Jan’s caller ID.

I kind of wish I could call Jan … so I could warn her.

Read Books. Wear Boots.




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