When I was in seventh grade, caller ID didn’t exist. There was no internet, no cell phones, no chat, no iPods — even CDs were a couple years out for most people. In the late '80s you had an untraceable landline (simply called “a phone”), cable TV, a VCR, and maybe Nintendo. When you were nuts from playing Super Mario too many times, what was there left to do but listen to GNR on the radio and apply Lee Press-on Nails? And as the night wore on what was there left to do but break off those fake nails dialing one stranger’s telephone number after another?
I made a lot of prank calls. I remember making most of them with my cousin Amy. We’d page through the phonebook in my town and find interesting names. We repeatedly called a man named Fred Krueger and said awesome lines like, “Come to Freddy!” in a raspy voice. Other times we’d just wing it and dial random numbers. I did this once, and when a woman answered I pretended to be crying. I said, “Mom?” and she said, “Lisa, is that you?” and I said, “Yeaaah *sniff sniff,*” and she said, “What’s wrong honey??” and I said, “Can you come get me?” and she said, “Are you at the school?” and I said, “Yes, please come get me,” and she said, “I’M ON MY WAY.” I wanted to call back and tell her it was just a prank, but I was too scared. Holy shit. I still feel horrible about that. But that was the only cruel one. Usually the calls were harmless, amazingly hilarious fun.
The best ones happened at Amy’s. She lived in a somewhat bigger, richer city — a place where you could page through the phonebook and find a “children’s line” listed under the family’s main number. We would call the children’s line, and if a boy answered we’d just start talking to him. We made up names and personas and were flirty. (I would die if I had to hear what that sounded like.) A surprising number of them would stay on the line, readily divulging personal info and being generally unguarded. That’s how we got the idea: I would call a guy from Amy’s school, make up a name, pretend we had met, and get him to talk.
For the first call, I assumed the fake identity Julie Moore. I don’t recall much about Julie’s “life” or “personality,” other than she went to a different school and met the boy (we’ll call him Jeff) at some sort of sporting event he was in. She got his number from … you know, someone at his school, details … and thought he was cute. With his general celebrity as an eighth-grade athlete, he was probably approached by girls all the time and didn’t question the meeting.
I must have been staying at Amy’s house for a couple weeks, because I called Jeff many, many times. I asked him all kinds of questions, many of which were mouthed or scribbled on a notepad by Amy. There was a thrill to improvising and a weird kind of power in getting this popular jock to talk about himself in a way he probably wouldn’t to a girl at his school. It was also a little bit diabolical. I was talking to him so much, and we were starting to know each other pretty well — that is, Julie and Jeff were — so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he asked me to get together in person. Yet I was surprised. I panicked and said, “Sure, I’ll totally meet you at the mall tomorrow!” Even after hanging up the phone, this could have been easily resolved. Just don’t show up! He doesn’t have your number! He doesn’t know your real name! Maybe we were getting bored with how easy the phone thing was. Maybe we threw our hands up and exclaimed, “We’ve taken it this far, what choice do we have?” Whatever our foolish logic was, we decided to go.
When I say “we,” I mean both Amy and I, because I couldn’t really ask my aunt to drop me off alone at the mall. Amy brought a friend, and the plan was to separate in the parking lot and then meet up later. How did we meet up without cell phones? Did we set a time and place? Did I wear a watch? Speaking of what I was wearing, I had dreadful, enormous glasses at the time. (I hated them with all of my heart, but couldn’t get contacts until I turned 12, months later.) So I decided it would be best for the sake of looking prettier if I just went sans glasses. I guess I figured I’m meeting some older guy at the mall and have to pretend I’m this made-up person, I might as well not be able to see anything. Somehow I remember I was wearing an over-sized, peach-colored t-shirt and some long, loose, white linenish shorts. I also had curled bangs — not big hair-metal bangs, but low, modest, I’m-going-to-have-straight-bangs-in-two-years-and-discover-The-Cure bangs. And the remnants of a perm, or maybe a somewhat fresh perm. But these were the times, right? It was Wisconsin.
We arrived at the food court entrance of the mall. We separated in the parking lot, and I entered first. I knew what Jeff looked like from his yearbook photo, and I knew he would be there with a guy and two girls. I found them at a table by the Cinnabon, and we exchanged introductions. The girls were unexpectedly friendly, but I was hit with a skin-tingling surge of panic. What if they asked about my school? I didn’t even know its physical location. What if they asked about where I lived? I wouldn’t be able to just hang up. My only choice would be to flee on foot — and I’d probably fall down.
Thankfully I was spared. They didn’t question anything or seem interested in figuring out the mystery of my presence, and I really only remember one thing about the remainder of my time with them at the mall: We ran up the down escalators. Over and over, laughing and out of breath as security guards yelled after us. It was fun.
After that the calls to Jeff stopped for some reason. Maybe my stay at Amy’s house ended — it’s not like I was going to call him long distance. (Long distance! Another thing of the past.) Over the next year we tried this on several other boys, but none of the conversations escalated to an in-person meeting, and the last guy somehow figured out my connection to Amy and confronted her at school. She admitted it, and that was that.
I feel a little bad for kids today. Sure, the opportunity to meet strangers and pretend you are someone else has increased exponentially online. But everything is more traceable and trackable. You can’t email someone and say, “Come to Freddy!!” with the same effect, and they can just block your address. You can’t tie up someone’s line by calling back repeatedly and letting the phone ring and ring after they’d given up on yelling at you and shaming you. Honestly, I feel lucky that I was 11 in 1987 and not 2011. Today, Amy and I would probably be trying to write spam code.
Sarah Schneeberger scatters her talents in Minneapolis.