Barry Smith: The telltale phone
July 4, 2002
I lived with my girlfriend at the time. She lived right below the landlord, who hated my car, and was therefore able to make the smooth transition into hating me.
There were a limited number of parking spaces in this little apartment complex – one car per apartment, in fact. Sometimes I would park in my girlfriend’s spot while she was at work. Though technically allowed, this action was still enough to get the beet juices flowing to Mr. Landlord’s head.
He wasn’t technically a landlord. I mean, he didn’t actually own this complex, he was just getting a good discount on his rent in exchange for being a fascist. He wasn’t exactly a property manager, either, as he never really did much management. As far as I could tell, his job description was to yell at me for parking in HIS parking lot.
At the time I wasn’t very fond of him, either. But with a few years of perspective, I now realize that he provided me with a great gift, one for which I am eternally thankful. Strange how those who are your sworn enemies can actually turn out to be so valuable in your life.
His gift to me is the following truth-is-stranger-than-slapstick story:
One afternoon, I drove my VW van right into the parking space allotted for the apartment. You know, “my” parking space.
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Mr. Landlord had already yelled at me in the past about the noise that my van made. It was an old VW, so it did have a distinctive sound. In fact, I think the closest to a conversation that Mr. Landlord ever had with me was the evening he yelled from his patio: “You need a muffler on that piece of shit!” I’m sure he meant well.
Obviously he had memorized the distinctive sound of my car, and no doubt the hairs on the back of his neck stood up that day as I rumbled to a stop and cut the engine.
I opened the door of the van and sat there for a moment gathering some things from the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” I heard Mr. Landlord say, obviously with enough volume to reach the parking lot. “It’s a brown and white VW van, and the license number is …”
I got out of the van and saw him standing on his patio, shouting into the cordless phone.
“Yep, it’s parked illegally,” he yelled with a volume and intensity usually reserved for people making cell-phone calls in restaurants.
I shut the van door and walked up the steps towards his apartment. I was going to once again patiently explain that I was parking in the allotted space, and that as a “guest” of my girlfriend I had permission to blahblahblah. When he saw me coming up the stairs he turned and went inside, still yelling into the phone.
By the time I was standing in his open doorway, he was next to the phone cradle. He pretended to not see me as he gave a final shout into the phone:
“Send a tow truck over right away!”
Then he hung up the phone.
But wait. There was a little bit of magic that happened in that brief moment. Just as he took the phone from his ear and began to guide it towards the base station, suddenly there came a loud beeping sound. You know the sound I’m talking about.
This sound is piercing by design, meant to alert you from a few rooms away: “Hey! Idiot! You didn’t hang your phone up!”
Or, in this case: “Hey! Idiot! You picked up the phone but didn’t dial a number!”
As the beeping started with the phone about two inches from his ear, Mr. Landlord dramatically accelerated the hanging up process, slamming it down fast. But it was too late. The alarm had sounded.
And to my ears it was sweet, sweet music.
This sound meant that not only was he pulling the lamest trick in the book, but that he hadn’t even pulled it well.
Mr. Landlord looked at me. He had heard the alarm. He knew that I’d heard the alarm. And he knew that I knew that he knew that I’d heard the alarm. Suddenly the tables were turned.
Can you imagine? He was so close, at least in his mind, of getting away with the perfect crime. It was as if he were calling Santa Claus on me, telling him that I’d been naughty. I used to pretend to call Santa to tell on my brother when we were kids, but at least I had the good sense to push a few buttons first.
Our eyes met for a moment. I knew that the future of me being allowed the occasional parking space was riding on me not doing the one thing that every cell in my body demanded that I do – fall to the floor, kicking with laughter.
My lip quivered. I suppressed a smile as best I could.
“You can’t park there,” he finally said, obviously humiliated, now staring at the floor.
“I’ll just be a minute,” I replied, already making a mental list of people to tell this story to, then I left him in his misery.
He never spoke to me again.
Mr. Landlord, I don’t know where you are now, but thank you, thank you, thank you for showing me that life CAN be funnier than a sitcom.
May your parking lots always be empty and your phone calls always be brief.