The phone rings while I’m fixing dinner for a friend (male, of course. Do you fix dinner for female friends?) “Hi, I’m a friend of Margie Shultz, and she said if I was ever in Chicago … ” Since I recognized the voice instantly—he had called three months earlier using the same line (Note: some nuisance callers have absolutely no imagination)—I replied, “I’m sorry, I’m busy with dinner. I’ll give you to my husband” and handed the phone to my thoroughly bewildered guest. Fortunately for all concerned, the caller had hung up before Peter had to gather his “husband” voice together.

Friday, October 1, 1971 Volume 1, No. 1 of the Chicago Reader: Chicago's Free Weekly—Maxwell Street on the cover of the first issue (Vol. 1 No. 1) followed by this article by Joan —
This was the cover story in the first issue of the Chicago Reader.

The Hi-There-You-Don’t-Know-Me-But caller is the most innocuous of undesired phone calls, but I have found this “husband technique” is an effective protector of privacy in any number of circumstances.

Sure, the excitement of a city is its people—in the streets, at work, at whatever. But I sometimes reach what I call “people-saturation”— that point in most any day when the social gatherings are just too much, the people too close. At this point, I am thankful to be a single woman with my own apartment. And no roommates, save a small gerbil named “The Beast.” Here the solitude is sweet and the people of the city forgotten as I concentrate on just being me. Then the phone rings and I pick it up to hear, not a friend, but heavy breathing! I hang up; but the solitude is broken. The people, via The Breather, have once again invaded my privacy.

The Breather is but one common type of annoying phone call I have received. You see, being a woman, I will react to the caller in some exciting manner. Thus functions the mind of your average crank caller. This type of call is annoying, but seldom dangerous since it is usually pretty easy to discourage the caller. Like the book says, the crank caller wants an audience—don’t give it to him.

Obviously, putting your full name in the phone book is not a good idea—my mistake. For the last few years (only because of my procrastination in calling the phone company and having them change it), my full name has been emblazoned in its proper column of the phone book for all to see: _, Joan. Every year, when the new phone books come out I envision this ecstatic crank caller greedily devouring each page of the book searching for new people to call. And yet sometimes I feel a definite advantage over the woman who has just used her initial. Though my full name is listed, I pronounce my name differently that most people would—a trade secret only my friends know. Most people, upon seeing “Joan” would pronounce it “Joan”; however, I pronounce it “Jo-ann!” thus any caller asking for “Joan” is immediately suspect.

But frequently, I find myself caught off-guard, probably because every time I pick up my phone I don’t say to myself, “Now Joan, be careful; this might be another one.” Perhaps the hardest time for me to remember to hang up immediately is at night, since I don’t completely awaken before picking up the phone when it rings. Stimulus-Response. But my inability to awaken completely is possibly one of my luckiest attributes for dealing with obscene phone calls at night. For example, recently I awakened and answered the phone about 2:00 in the morning. A seemingly familiar voice at the other end asked, “Were you awake?” “No.” “Were you having a wet dream?” “No.” At which point my mind and reflexes coordinated, and I hung up. My whole conversation had been in my typical bored monotone of sleep (which by the way, is a tremendous let-down for any crank caller). The reason I had stayed on so long was the obviously devious manner of the caller. At first it really didn’t appear to be an obscene phone call. And anyway, most of my friends never give their name when they call—kind of that notion that if I have to ask, I will insult them. This is a notion I am trying to rectify.

A considerably less subtle technique is the Threatening Phone Call. One night last week around 4:30 a.m. I answered the phone and heard: “Joan, if you don’t do what we tell you, we’re going to come up and rape you.” My sleep-fuddled mind was still coping with the first word, Joan, which the caller pronounced Joan instead of Jo-ann. Resisting the urge to goad my caller, I responded, “Are you sure you have the right number?” and hung up.

I sat there a few minutes musing about what they might have told me to do. Maybe, just maybe, this one would have thought of something clever. This kind of curiosity is often felt, but rarely rewarded. If the guy is clever, why doesn’t he have friends to listen to his wit? And the urge to match wits is often present—like wanting to answer, “O.K., what shall I do?” or better yet, “Sure, rape sounds fine, but tonight isn’t really convenient.” but then you’ve struck up a conversation with someone you really don’t know—or for that matter, want to know. Or you’ve provided him with a story to bore his friends with. So they’ll call you tomorrow. Be dull. It’s the wise thing.

Of course, after a crank call like the above, lying awake and worrying is a totally natural reaction. If this happens, do something—call the police, call the phone company, call the man at the desk downstairs. But don’t panic: it doesn’t help. If the man keeps calling back, keep hanging up on him. Sooner or later he’ll run out of dimes or patience. (The annoyance specialist at the phone company said that most adult callers use pay phones.) Or put a pillow over the phone and get some sleep. If the caller becomes a real pest, the phone company and police will try to trace the call. To do this, they must have a five-day record of the nuisance-caller’s behavior. Other possibilities are having all your incoming calls handled by an operator who will ask for the number of the caller, etc., before putting the call through to you. A last ditch possibility is getting a temporary change of listing.

Being the self-reliant type, however, I started talking to people about countermeasures. The lady down the hall keeps a penny whistle by her phone. Unwanted callers get an earful of piercing shriek. She says don’t listen to the receiver while you do it—it hurts you too.

Other suggestions have arrived from friends. One I found particularly interesting. It was suggested that, my male-impersonation not yet being perfected, I have a male friend do a recording (of my choice) to be used as an assault on callers that phone purely to bother me. However, I have found that this technique is not only difficult and time-consuming, but almost disappointing. Imagine setting up up the tape every night before going to bed—and then not receiving an obscene phone call. This dearth of calls can go on for weeks: and of course, the one night you have failed to be prepared … the phone rings and it is not a friend. Another problem with this type of technique is that it is best for late hours, but if you’re like me, you have answered the phone before you are really awake. Anyway, being awakened from a sound sleep, I am hardly able to cope with the complications of this technique. Although I don’t know of anyone who has tried it, another good idea might be to click the receiver or dial 1, and then quickly say, “Operator, this is the call I want traced!” Of course, this won’t produce any action on the part of the phone company.

Actually, the sensible thing to do is simply hang up as the phone company recommends. Out of calls reported to the phone company, only one in five is persistent enough to call over a greater than five-day period. When calls do persist, you’ll want to get in touch with Mrs. Elizabeth Stemps of the Annoyance Calls Bureau. Her phone number is 727-1091.

As of the moment, I still don’t know how my more clever tactics are going to pay off. Last week out of desperation, I left town for a good night’s sleep. Now, I remain, practicing my impersonation of a thoroughly pissed-off man awakened … .


The first part of a 40-week series in which we take a look at a specific year in Chicago history via the pages of the Reader.