Wednesday, April 27, 2005

When trouble calls

My home town offered nothing to keep kids out of trouble, so they were forced to be as creative with their trouble as possible. Some was more benign than others. I recall skinny-dipping in the Atlantic ocean - not a soul within kilometres, save for the bones of the dead that had been washed into the bay by a notorious hurricane decades ago. My imagination created an element of risk where there was none.

Other kids weren't so easily amused, so they took advantage of what natural resources were available. Muddy boys caught fish each summer evening to watch them flop until their inevitable end. A slow death is anticlimactic, though, so they soon upped the ante by chanting an age-old children's song usually reserved for dandelions. When they arrived at the final line: "Momma had a baby and its head popped off!", they stomped the fish. The dull squishing sound of its decapitation was mercifully smothered by their laughter.

A sensitive child, I'd observe from the sidelines, a witness to fish death after fish death, and scream through my tears, "How would you like it if I did that to you!?" Many, many years passed before I realized I was part of their game.

The kids in the adjacent town had more resources for self-entertaining than the kids in my little village: a pay phone. This was during the golden age, when pay phones not only received calls, but the number was posted on the dial. Installed just outside the only convenience store, the pay phone offered kids purpose and anonymous guidance - a ringing oracle in the night.

They gathered around the battered, lighter-burnt oracle, amused themselves and, on parting, spit in the change return dip for the first poor, unsuccessful caller the next day. The simple tool of communication provided lasting amusement for both loiterers and prank callers. It is a sad reality that now that I live in a city of millions, with thousands of pay phones, the golden age of receiving calls on public phones has passed. Except for this one...

Like a beacon in the night, it rings, summoning passers-by to lift its lighter-burnt receiver to hear the words of a chosen few. We don't share the number. We argue about who gets to do the calling.

The pay phone is downtown, near a park. There are several stores across the street from which the respondents may be observed. The same person never answers twice.

It is surprising how many people are willing to look in the garbage for something a strange old man or junkie on the phone claims to have "accidentally lost". How kind of them to sully their hands and return to the phone to apologize for not having found "it".

It makes me happy for all the good that still exists in the world. People are still kind. Even when I am not.

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