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Phony Phone Calls of Yore
Something a little lighter this time around
“My copy of the Los Angeles Yellow Pages I stole from the Beverly Hilton Hotel three years ago. It has been a fund of extraordinary material, as surrealist in its way as Dali’s biography”.
Remember The Yellow Pages, the business directory and pre-digital doorstop that pretty much everyone used to find phone numbers for retail services, down to the most obscure kind? From the time when phones were without apps and had the sole purpose of speaking directly to other human beings?
Wikipedia tell us “the name and concept of "yellow pages" came about in 1883, when a printer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, US working on a regular telephone directory, ran out of white paper and used yellow paper instead.” The first official Yellow Pages directory appeared in 1886, and for over a century represented the only “search engine” anyone had.
In other words, serious old-timey stuff. In the early 1980’s I worked for the Yellow Pages at an outpost in Burnaby, where I was hired to knock off clip-art style advertisements like a caged monkey with art tools, in an office space dominated by loud, bantering salesmen. One day there was much ado about a pending visit from the company’s American owner, with the improbable name of Rhett Butler (as in “Gone With the Wind”). I have a vague recollection of some dude showing up in a stetson, but that part could be confabulation.
In any case, I don’t remember the gig fondly and I didn’t last long. I say all this to preface a retelling of a more successful adventure afterwards with the Yellow Pages.
As J.G. Ballard observed, the directory’s advertisements made for a goldmine of unintended surrealism. So imagine it’s a lazy summer day in the late 80’s, and you’re sitting around the family swimming pool with your sister, with only a rotary phone and the Yellow Pages as props for amusement. What do you do?
Phony phone calls, of course. We let our fingers do the walking, on search for businesses with the most comical possibilities.
I started by placing a call to Humpty’s Surgical Corsets (“We Put Humpty Together Again”). “This is Mr. Dumpty,” I said, in a somber lower register sounding like Alfred Hitchcock. “I have a problem with a surgical corset I purchased.” A chipper young woman counseled me to continue, sounding genuinely concerned with my plight.
“I have fallen off the wall once again. All the king’s horses and all the kings men cannot put me back together again. The corset is completely useless.” The woman informed me the manager would be in later in the afternoon, and asked again for my name. “Dumpty,” I replied, spelling it out. “D. U. M. P. T. Y. I will call again later.”
On to the next call. Maple Leaf Self Storage sounded like it had possibilities. “I would like to store myself,” I said in an ethnic accent, describing myself as a new arrival to North Delta. “I also have fourteen aunts, thirteen cousins, and five nephews. I would like to store them too.” The fellow at the other end helpfully informed me that Maple Leaf stored possessions, not people.
Next, I made a far flung call to a Crazy Mike’s Video in the Fraser Valley, identifying myself as a field worker with the Department of Hurt Feelings. I told the manager I had personally received a number of complaints from patrons of the store. “‘Crazy’ is an offensive term to those with mental or emotional difficulties, ” I said officiously. I then proposed some more acceptable names for the franchise: Psychologically Disturbed Mike’s, Manic Depressive Mike’s, Diagnostic Statistical Manual Mike’s.
I remember him yelling, “You people really are something else!” before hanging up.
My sister, on the other line, was having a hard time stifling laughter, as was I. The secret to phony phone calls was to do them straight and to stay in character. I was surprised how literal-minded the victims were. As soon as I said “Mr. Dumpty”, or “Psychologically Disturbed Mike’s” I figured the jig was up, but no.
A few more calls were made, including one to the local office of the Church of Scientology. I identified myself as a Thetan, a two-thousand year old soul Scientologists believe whizzes around in space before adopting corporeal existence through conception. I told the woman on the phone I was orbiting Earth and scoping out for a new body: male and (eventually) over six feet tall. She responded with a fit of laughter, which I took as a pretty healthy response from a cult member. “Ooops, I gotta go,” I said, “ a meteor’s comin’!”
There is no longer a Humpty’s Surgical Corsets on Granville, and it appears the last Crazy Mike’s Video outlet was shuttered in Bellingham in 2015. Maple Leaf Storage still soldiers along, as does the Scientology outpost in Vancouver. As for the Yellow Pages itself, the last directory was issued in the UK in 2019. Its century-plus run was over.
As for me, my goofball routine by the parental pool dates back to the palmy days of rotary telephones, untraceable calls, and politically incorrect behaviour (mine, at least). To pull of any of these tricks undetected today, I’d need a drawerful of burner phones and voice-altering software. Yes, for lulz I could be the Walter White of comical telephone fraud, but like standup comedy, this a was a one-time thing for me. Phony phone calls, effectively and satisfyingly achieved, were crossed off my bucket list.
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