30 Stories in 30 Days: Day 19By Darci Ratliff
November 19, 2011
For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.
This is one of my favorite stories. I’ve told it a hundred times, but never documented it completely in writing. I guess Day 19 is the day to do that.
Long Time Caller
In the summer of 2003, I went on a short tour with my friend Jon, a.k.a. Corn Mo. He was opening for The Polyphonic Spree as they played a handful of dates on the East Coast. I was driving him from gig to gig and filming his performances for a TV pilot some guy in Illinois was putting together.
In North Carolina, Jon rented his own car and the morning after the show, headed on to finish the tour while I drove back home. Touring had been fun, but my regular life was calling me back to New York. We both had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we left pretty early in the morning.
About an hour later my cell phone rang. It was Jon. I answered, but got nothing but static. I hung up and tried to call him back, but again, static. I hung up again, thinking that if he had something important to tell me he’d call me back.
He did; about fifteen times in a row.
We weren’t getting any better reception, no matter how many times he tried. Keep in mind that it was 2003. However terrible you think your cell phone reception is now, it was a thousand times worse back then. Plus, I was in the hill country of Middle of Nowhere, North Carolina. And this was kinda before texting. I mean, people could text, but most people didn’t, as a rule. It was still kind of a mystery back then.
So our only real option was to keep calling each other until we were connected. My phone kept ringing every 30 seconds or so. Twice a minute I’d get a call, pick up, yell, confusedly into the phone and disconnect, each time more frustrated than the last.
“Hello? Jon? Can you… Hello? Are you there? [click] Fuck.”
“Hey, Jon I’m… Hello? Hey I’m gonna try to… What? Hello? [click] FUCK!”
I became worried. Jon clearly needed to speak to me. What if he left some of his equipment in my car? What if he was stranded somewhere? I became paranoid that whatever he needed was going to require turning around and heading back in the opposite direction, meaning I’d lose at least a couple of hours in the process.
I took the first exit I saw, assuming there’d be a gas station or rest stop nearby. I thought I’d find a pay phone, or something resembling civilization, where cell phone reception might be better. Instead, I saw signs informing me that the nearest town was 25 miles east. I sighed and headed east, still answering my cell phone every minute or so along the way.
Finally I made it to the town, if you define “town” as “a strip mall across the street from another strip mall.” The strip mall on the left had a convenience store with a pay phone in the parking lot, so I turned left and parked. I picked up the world’s most disgusting pay phone receiver and dialed Jon’s number to see how much a long distance call would cost. It was almost $4, which I didn’t happen to have in quarters, because I never needed change because it was 2003 and I had a cell phone.
I went inside the convenience store and waited in line at the counter. My phone rang a couple of times while I waited, so I answered it in a whisper-yell, still trying to let Jon know I was going to call him from a land line, and still unsuccessful. Finally I got to the counter and asked the clerk if I could have change for a $5. He didn’t want to give it to me, so I explained that I needed it to make a phone call, and that it was urgent. He was less than sympathetic, I’m guessing because I was holding a ringing cell phone in my hand. I bought some gum and he gave me change for a dollar and four ones. The look on his face told me that was as good as it was going to get.
I left the store and looked around. I noticed that there was a laundromat across the street. “Change machine!” I thought, and hopped in my car.
The laundromat was empty, save for the old lady who apparently ran the place. I found the change machine and as I approached it, noticed a hand-written sign on a piece of notebook paper taped to the wall beside it.
CHANGE FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY
I ignored it and started stuffing dollars into the change machine. I figured if the old lady had a problem, I’d just pretend not to speak English. As I waited for the quarters to drop into the coin cup I silently practiced what I would say to convince her. I turned to leave and noticed the old lady giving me the stink eye. She could tell I was not a customer. I guess the fact that I wasn’t carrying any laundry gave me away.
“America! Good times thank you!” I said with an awkward smile and a thumbs up. I hurried out of the store.
The pay phone near the laundromat was cleaner, but didn’t work at all. It was just as well–I had noticed the laundry lady was now glaring at me through her front door, and I was anxious to leave her stink-eye stare behind. I got in my car and drove back across the street to the first pay phone.
Have I mentioned my cell phone was still ringing? It never stopped. Never. About forty minutes had passed since Jon’s first call, and I had been trying to answer ever since. I was beginning to lose my mind.
I put sixteen quarters in the pay phone, one at a time, and dialed Jon’s number. I heard a busy signal, because of course I did, because he was STILL TRYING TO CALL ME. I tried again. Do you know how long it takes to put in 16 quarters, one at a time? WAY TOO LONG. Irritated, I quickly punched in the numbers and mis-dialed the last one. I let out a frustrated yawp and tried again, and mis-dialed again AND STARTED TO TALK VERY LOUDLY TO NO ONE!
“FOR THE LOVE OF… COULD YOU JUST… AUUUGHHHHH!”
Finally, I stopped freaking out. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then I calmly vowed to survive this.
I put 15 quarters into the pay phone and slowly, deliberately dialed Jon’s number. I waited for the phone in my pocket to stop ringing, put in the last quarter and held my breath.
It rang. He answered. I could hear him.
And suddenly, a wave of relief washed over me. I could hear him! We were connected. And I knew everything was going to be okay. Whatever problem he was calling to tell me about didn’t matter. The 45 minutes of infuriating Nokia tone didn’t matter. The convenience store jerk and the stink-eyed laundry lady didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I drove 25 miles out of my way, or that I was standing in strip mall parking lot in Bum-Fuck, North Carolina, holding a filthy phone receiver to my face. All that mattered was that I was talking to my amazing, wonderful friend, and that he could hear me. We were connected. Everything was going to be okay.
“Hey, Jon.” I said, with relief.
“Hey, Darci!” Jon greeted me, as if he was surprised to hear from me.
“That was crazy, right?!”
“Yeah!” Jon confirmed.
“So, what’s going on, buddy?” I asked.
Jon replied, “Oh my God. Darci. I just tried the new McGriddles sandwich from McDonalds and it is amazing. Amazing! You have to try one. You have to try one!”
That’s why he was calling.
In his defense, his call was legitimately urgent. He needed to reach me before 10:30, so that I could try the McGriddles before they stopped serving breakfast. That’s just a totally valid course of action that I’m sure would hold up in any court. I mean, it’s not like I can go to a McDonalds any time, in any city, every single day.
I promised him I would try the McGriddles as soon as possible and thanked him for the heads up. We said good bye and I put the disease-ridden phone receiver back on its cradle.
As I walked to my car, I took my cell phone out of my pocket and turned it completely off. I threw the phone in the back seat and drove back to New York, back to my regular life.