Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One Number

Back when I lived on Silver Avenue, my telephone number was one digit off a local bail bondsman. While this was bothersome for me, rousing me from my bed at all hours of the night, it was more than tragic for the caller -- more often than not some poor drunk using their one call to get out of jail and wasting it on me, a girl with no means whatsoever to offer them bail.  It was never easy to tell them that they had reached the wrong number. And after hanging up, I always wondered if the attending policeman would let them dial the number again, or was that it? Their only call, gone because of just one number, the number 3 instead of 2.

But I wasn't the worst case I knew of being one number away from well sought after service. My boyfriend Py's upstairs neighbor was one digit off Greensboro's Time and Temperature. Py lived in the stonewalled basement of a two-story house near campus, and because he had no ceiling and no walls, just ducts and floor boards above his head, we were privy to just about everything that went on in the neighbor's apartment. Which looking back now, I don't think we considered that the reverse was true. We called Py's basement The Cave and the upstairs neighbor La Vaca -- she was a woman of considerable heft, so enormous in fact, that she had difficulty walking and occasionally she fell, which was horrifying to us, because it seemed as though she might come right through the floor and plunge into our quarters. We were fairly certain she spent a fair amount of her time drinking, hence the falling, and the terrible struggles to right herself . . . see? I told you we were privy to it all. I'm not proud of the fact that we never flew upstairs to knock on her door and ask her if she were okay, my only defense is that I was young and more than anything squeamish about La Vaca's life.

So we began to hear La Vaca answering the phone with the same refrain multiple times throughout the day and evening, "Hello? You have the wrong number." And that was it, for a while. But the refrain evolved, "Hello? You have the wrong number. I have no idea what time it is!" And then, "Hello? I cannot give you the Time or the Temperature, please leave me alone!" and finally, "Hello? If you want the Time and the Temperature, dial 0389 not 0388!" Poor La Vaca, her phone was becoming her enemy.

And then? Daylight Savings came, the day of reckoning. We knew it was coming and we wondered if she knew? Would she take action? Would she call the phone company and change her number before it was too late?

The calls began flooding in sometime after midnight and we heard her kitchen chair drag across the the linoleum, where she plunked it down solidly next to what we imagined was a wall phone next to her refrigerator. The phone would ring, and La Vaca would answer it briskly before the second ring ever came, and in a voice we had never heard from her before, a strong, professional voice, one that might come out of your radio, she would recite the precise Time and a Temperature, that by our calculations from the little thermometer we had hanging outside The Cave under a dogwood tree, was practically spot on. She manned her post all night and throughout the next day enduring the Time Change and assisting those who had simply dialed 8 instead of 9.

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