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When a Stranger Calls 

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I ordered it on a whim. My friend Deb was talking it up. She said it was at least as entertaining as TV. Of course she hasn't had a TV for over a year, and I don't think she realizes that just about anything is more entertaining than TV. Anyway, she told me about it after the power went out for 12 hours during the first of the summer's heat waves. Along with the electricity went all of the soybean-related contents of her refrigerator.

And her answering machine. Yet Deb knew exactly how many old boyfriends had called during the blackout. Four. Some called more than once. Andy, the whiny bike enthusiast who lives in a house built for one person, called three times.

Deb knew this because she had Caller-ID. The best part is that she wasn't obligated to call any of them back. They hadn't been able to leave a message, so how was she supposed to know they called?

Caller-ID is power.

I've had the service for about a month. It helps me decide when to pick up the phone and when to play possum. Old boyfriends don't call me, but lots of yucky potential mates do. (Like Deb, I'm a creep magnet.)

I ordered the free monthly trial during a fit of weakness; a failed relationship had left me hurt and vulnerable to clever marketing campaigns. So there I was, miserable and unable to leave the house, dialing 1-800-AROUND-U. I think it was the only thing I did that day. My choice was between that and the Time-Life Music Best of the 80s 25-CD collection. I already owned the Best of the 50s from my last failed relationship; the breakup before that compelled me to change long-distance companies.

Since Caller-ID was free, for a month at least, it seemed like a smart choice. The salesperson on the other end of the line also talked me into eight additional services, including Three-Way Calling.

For a few weeks nothing much happened with Caller-ID. I avoided several aimless conversations with my brother, but that's about it. Until a few nights ago, when I was feeling better and trying to call an editor with a great story idea. I dialed hastily. A woman answered the phone with a tentative "Hello."

I hung up immediately.

"Yikes!" I thought. "I hope they don't have Caller-ID." A few years ago I misdialed a number, and a large, hairy-sounding guy called back and yelled at me--of course I denied placing the call.

Almost immediately my phone rang. I checked the white Caller-ID box. The LCD said it was one "Rich Punchinello," and his number was a slightly transposed version of the number I'd been trying to call.

Oops!

I knew the meek, hesitant woman with the soft voice wasn't on the other end of the line. It was her brother Rich and his friends. I pictured an army of drug dealers with machine guns on their way to my house.

You see, Caller-ID doesn't just feed the paranoia of the person who has the service--it makes the boxless masses paranoid as well.

Rich's call came at 6:08. I turned off my answering machine and let the phone ring. He kept it up for about 20 rings. I hovered about the white box, studying the spelling of his last name. I felt harassed--trapped in my house and afraid to turn on the answering machine.

He called back again at 6:10, then at 6:15, while I was in the shower. (If an army of men were on their way to my house I might as well make a dramatic exit.) When the phone rang again at 6:37 I was clean and dry and ready to fight back. I picked up the phone and pressed "start" on my fax machine. The loud, annoying Ree-ee-EEEE! sound worked: Dick, as I was now calling him, didn't call back for another hour.

By that time I was on Devon Avenue, enjoying vegetable curry and basmati rice. I'd turned the answering machine on before leaving the house, but when I got home Dick hadn't left a message.

He did leave a trail. According to Caller-ID, he'd called at 7:27 and 7:30. I stood over the white box, waiting for the phone to ring. I began to wish I hadn't missed his earlier calls. I brooded for a while, then came up with a plan. I picked up the phone and dialed *67 to block my number so he couldn't read it. Then, using the number provided by the white box, I called Dick's house. As soon as I heard someone answer I hung up.

Ha! I had shifted the balance of power. The feeling was heady--like when you jump a curb on your bike (I'm a paranoid bike enthusiast) and don't get hurt. But when no one called back my victory seemed hollow. What, was Dick stupid? Didn't he know it was me messing with him? I expected more of someone with enough money to have Caller-ID.

Now I was ready for war. I called the reverse phone directory (796-9600), prepared to harass Dick and his family for the rest of the evening--or at least until the ten o'clock news.

Another disappointment. His name wasn't listed. That paranoid freak! Denying me a full night of entertainment.

The next day of course my Dick paranoia seemed foolish. I mean, what would he have said if I'd answered when he first called? "You called me and hung up." So what?

Deb had an exchange a few years ago--long before the days of readily available Caller-ID--when she dialed a wrong number and hung up. A mean-sounding man called back immediately and demanded, "Who's this?"

"You called me," said Deb, an advocate of good phone etiquette. "Who's this?"

"No," he retorted. "You called me, and you hung up."

So what, dipstick? Hanging up on people isn't illegal--yet.

But ID'ing those who do call and hang up is expensive. If I don't send that white box back in the next week it'll cost me $54.95, not to mention the $9 per month Ameritech charges to indulge my paranoia.

It's enough to make you crazy.

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