Monday

December 18th, 2017

Insight

Call this number now

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Feb. 1, 2017

Call this number now

The old gas heater in the bathroom clicked, clicked, clicked and finally caught on and started to turn the little room into our personal sauna. All we needed was some birch branches with a sting to them and it could have been a scene from an Ingmar Bergman movie. The dour, shrouded figure of death, who was always waiting in the wings of a Bergman production, was kept where He belonged: waiting. Here all was life, and life was good for the transient moment.

My favorite second cousin Janice -- or was she a first cousin once removed? -- had called from N'Awlins, and the sound of her voice was still resonating in my ear and memory. For her accent was an exact duplicate of her sweet mother Ann's, a combination of Southern and South Chicagoan with an occasional Yiddishism thrown in for lagniappe. Once, when her flight to join her beloved Pinky had been canceled, Ann had turned decidedly pale. My father and I, who'd taken her to the airport in Shreveport, were concerned. "How do you feel?" we'd asked. "Ah bissel farkockt," she'd replied. "A little shat upon."

There was the time daughter Janice and I were standing by Ann's bedside in a cold hospital room when Janice, a registered nurse, noted that her mother's capillaries seemed just fine despite the clinical air of the room. At which point Ann chimed in from her druggy semi-coma to add: "Yes, my capillaries is just fine, thank you." How sweet the sound of voices remembered from childhood, especially if they came complete with almost automatic Southern courtesy.

What a contrast with the cold, disembodied voice of the robocaller on our line and on the lines of thousands if not millions of others at this moment, trawling for countless more suckers. Mr. Robocaller will doubtless find plenty, for there's still one born every minute if not nanosecond.

Our reveries having been interrupted on this cold winter's day by Robocaller's imperious command, there was no getting back to warm, sweet nostalgia, which someone once defined as homesickness for the past.

But enough of all that. "Your account has been overdrawn and you must call this number at once!" the disembodied voice demanded, and, once admitted entrance, would soon enough request our credit card and Social Security number.

Why, one wondered, did it always seem to be a male voice on the other end of this line. Because a woman's voice might sound too human?

"You can't cheat an honest man," they say, meaning that the dishonesty of the pigeon turns him into an accomplice to the larcenous instincts of the con man. In the classic short story by Flannery O'Connor, she has her Bible salesman of a charlatan leave our heroine in the lurch after he's run off with her artificial limb.

There are all kinds of cons being run all the time in this country and points well beyond. There's the short con being perpetrated by the bum who, pretending to ask for just enough gas money to get home, begs you for the few dollars he needs for his next drink. There are the magazine salesmen who descend on a neighborhood in packs before packing up and moving on to the next town. Or the kind of cheater who'll stiff you by miscounting your change. Or the one who'll gladly fill your transmission with sawdust and then, when your car won't start, will blame it on the last mechanic to work on it. But at least all those crooks have faces to go with their cons. This confidence man is anonymous and wants to stay that way.

How many countless duplications of his duplicitous voice have been made by now? One imagines the robocaller sitting in a windowless, airless room as he tells all the recipients of his command out there that they'd made his sucker's list, and had better start hustling. "Call this number now!" the voice commands in Teutonic tones. Achtung! The message could have been one badly translated from the original German. The march of science-cum-commerce stumbles on through the thickets densely populated with con artists of all kinds.

There must still be millions of easily confused people out there who take such a call seriously and wind up paying for their one thoughtless mistake the rest of their lives as they try to untangle this knot they've woven for themselves -- with more than a little help from these so-and-sos who've have taken advantage of their gullibility, or just senility. With the kind of bottom-feeders who devise such rackets in mind, I begin to reconsider my own long-time opposition to capital punishment.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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