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A Yankee Notebook

November 20, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The phone rang on the wall behind my left shoulder. I reached back, took it from the cradle, and checked the caller identification. I love Caller ID! No name this time; just an unfamiliar number in Tampa, Florida. “Ah ha!” I thought. “How do I feel today?” I had, a couple of hours earlier, watched a video clip of Danny Kaye, whose German officer imitation was at least as good as Sid Caesar’s. So I was feeling German, and about 70 years old.

“Hallo?” I answered, with a rising interrogatory inflection.

“Is this Mr. Lange?”

“Lange?” I imitated her pronunciation. “Dot’s not even glose. Putt go ahead.” She launched into a script that I think was written in English, but she read so rapidly, it sounded more like a heated argument in Spanish. I did pick up a couple of words, though: “security system.”

“Vot? You are selling gme segurity zystem? Wofür? Mein haus, it is segure shust da vay it iss. I haff here zwei – ah, two – rifles und also two Doberman Pinschers.”

She was a game gal, though, even if she did have a certifiable Teutonic lunatic on the line. “Well. It’s secure, all right,” she said, “as long as you have your rifle right in your lap.”

“Vile ve are shpeaking, I haff it right here. You vant to hear it go pang? I shoot out sa vindow. You vant to hear sa dogs park?” She bade me a cheerful good day and moved on to her next victim. She couldn’t know that New England newspapers have lately been featuring stories of telephone scams offering home security systems. Like Ebenezer Scrooge after blowing off his nephew’s invitation to dinner, I returned to my labors with a much improved opinion of myself.

Mother and I have dealt with sales calls for many decades now. For a while we conducted a contest to see which of us could keep a caller on the line the longest while buying nothing. Then we were frustrated for a while by robocalls, which had no human being on the other end of the line. But I suspect that robocalls generated so much antagonism and so little business that telephone hucksters went back to the scripted personal touch. Meanwhile, we aren’t so desperate for amusement as we once were, so we now usually simply present a persona that rapidly convinces the caller of the futility of further conversation.

I grew up around plenty of German-Americans – old men who called me “Pilly” and asked if I were a “goot poy”; so I’m onto their linguistic mannerisms. Instead of “th,” as in “this,” they say either “siss” or ‘Diss.” I prefer the High German “siss.” It’s also important to adopt a contemptuous attitude toward whatever the callers are suggesting, as when they mispronounce your name. It’s not pleasant for them, I suppose, but hey! they started it. I occasionally channel Inspector Clouseau, Hercule Poirot, Travis Bickle, or Ajax Cassidy from old-time radio – any of whom can be tricky, if rewarding, to carry off. I never essay Spanish because the caller may be bilingual in that fastest-growing alternative tongue, and my phony goose will be cooked.

I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the currently struggling economy, the now widespread dissemination of private information, or an increasing willingness to invade homeowners’ private space, but we seem to get more catalogs, irresistible offers, and telephone sales calls than ever before. They’re all invasive species, and I find them intensely irritating. (I love to hear Mother say loudly, “What is there about ‘No’ that you find confusing?”) But, you know, I figure it’s our phone and their nickel, and a recreational attitude toward them can make a lot of difference.

Nobody in our family has or has ever had diabetes, but we contribute a nominal amount each year to its eradication. Still they call us – often, too – and when I see their name on the handset, I become instantly a half-crazy, half-deaf, shouting old Norwegian who appears eager to please.

“Hollow,” I answer. “Diss is Ole Yørgensen on da phone. Who’s dat? Dia-who? Diabeetiess? Iss dat your name or da namess of da personss you’re lookin’ for?” Norwegian-Americans pronounce a hard “s” on the ends of their plurals. They don’t lilt as much as Swedes, but a little can’t hurt. I mean, how does a caller in Tampa, Florida, know much about that?

After half a dozen who?’s and what?’s and by golly, young lady, I can’t hear you’s, I turn away from the phone and call toward another room, “Sveetheart, ve got anybody here by da name Diabeetiess?” Back to the phone: “Nope, nobody by dat name here. Wrong number, I guess. Lemme tink. Try Kari Svenson up on Elm Road? He may know her.”

You’ve got to keep firmly in mind what the sales caller probably knows about you: your name and phone number, obviously; your age (Why do you think you get all those calls for power wheelchairs and prescription meds?); the average income in your zip code. But also consider what he or she doesn’t know: that you’re deaf as an adder, half-crazy, recently naturalized, lonesome for company, and not sure which end of the phone to talk into. You’re not going to buy anything, anyway, even if you speak seriously or fly off the handle. So why not bring a little entertainment into both your lives? It’s fun, and costs literally nothing. I’m currently working on the late Harold MacMillan, which will add a quintessential Conservative Englishman to my repertoire.

Photo by Willem lange