In the 1986 movie Ruthless People, the character played by Danny DeVito answers the phone, responding, “Yeah, Debbie’s here, who’s this? Well, Ralph, uh, Debbie can’t talk right now. . . . How about if I have her call you back later when I’m done?” He then hangs up and says with a sinister grin, “I love wrong numbers.”
I once witnessed a friend tell the person on the other end of a wrong number that the man’s girlfriend was “upstairs in the club,” hanging out with all the guys, and that she refused to talk to him. (We were actually in my friend’s backyard, and the caller was severely intoxicated.)
Now, I’ve never pulled either of those pranks, but the opportunity does present itself each and every week—that is how often I get misdialed. My number consists of three digits in a repetitive series. I chose it for a simple reason: My cell number should be one that’s easy to remember because I’ve got too many other things to memorize.
And it’s not just me. We all seem to be memorizing, more than ever, bits of information that do nothing to enrich our lives: usernames, passwords, and PIN numbers to access not only the Internet, but also our offices, computers at home and at work, and smartphones. Making matters worse, cyber experts tell us it’s best to devise different sets of passwords and PINs in order to better guarantee our security.
Every now and then, we are asked to reset our passwords, followed by a series of security questions. What was the name of your high school sophomore year homeroom teacher? How about the team name of your middle school? (We were the Trojans, which is fine if you’re USC, but not if you’re a Catholic institution—the team was eventually renamed the Spartans to avoid further ribbing, so to speak.) Occasionally, an onscreen icon will rate your new password or PIN—mine seem to be highly vulnerable until I add even more letters and digits.
To deal with this information overload, I chose a listing that just rolls off the tongue. “Great number,” I’ve often been told. Unfortunately, it’s also too easy to mistake for others. I’ve checked for messages and heard the voice of an elderly woman wondering why she hasn’t been picked up for the last two hours. Sometimes the messages are in foreign languages. Georgetown University Hospital called to have a patient reschedule her procedure. For several days Sears Home Services kept calling because of a repair problem at someone else’s house.
I try my best to return these calls. It took a chunk of my time to reach the hospital (and I have no idea if that old lady was ever picked up). Twice a local television station rang me, looking for someone at the Family Research Council. And once New York congressman Peter King left me a voicemail message saying I needed to call him back about some unfinished business.
And yet my predicament could be so much worse. In 1982, one-hit wonder Tommy Tutone came out with the hit song “Jenny (867-5309).” It’s a catchy tune, and the number resonates with you. The urban legend-debunking website Snopes.com confirms that the song “caused nothing but grief for telephone customers unlucky enough to have that combination of numbers as their own.”
Last year the Akron Beacon Journal caught up with the Shambarger family, who owned the local 867-5309 some 30 years ago. “It started out as an isolated phone call here and there,” Charles Shambarger told the newspaper. “We’d get a phone call: ‘Is Jenny there?’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m sorry, you have the wrong number.’ Maybe a couple of nights later, I’d get another phone call: ‘Is Jenny there?’ ” According to reporter Mark J. Price, “The phone began to ring at different times of the day and night. Most callers sounded young and had rock music playing in the background. They often laughed before hanging up.” The family finally caved and changed their number.
In 1999, two girls at Brown University had the unfortunate listing. “It’s so annoying,” one of them complained to the Brown Daily Herald. “It’s the worst number to have in the world.” The Herald added that “some ask for Jenny, some play the Tommy Tutone song on the girls’ answering machine, and some males even leave their phone numbers in the hopes of finding a date.”
I can relate—several times a week I receive phone calls from a woman asking me to take her out on a date. I’ve been tempted to tell her I’m hanging out “upstairs in the club” with all the girls, but something tells me my wife wouldn’t find that amusing.