Telephone Line by
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When I was a kid, my friends and I used to love making phony phone calls. I don’t know why it seemed so hilarious, but it did. We would dial a number that we picked at random out of the telephone book. When someone answered, we would say “Is your refrigerator running?” They would say “yes,” and we would say “well you’d better go catch it!” and then hang up, dissolving in peals of laughter. Another favorite was to call a number and ask “is Jane [or some other name] there?” They would say “no” and we would hang up. Then call again a few minutes later, again asking for Jane. Do this three or four more times, then call and say “Hi, this is Jane, have there been any calls for me?”

I’m sure these same idiotic lines were being used by kids all over the country, we certainly didn’t make them up. And now I can understand how annoying it might have been to be on the receiving end. But of course now kids can’t do it anyway, because everybody has Caller ID. When I told my kids about my phony phone calls, they thought it was amazing that there used to be a time when you didn’t know who was calling until you answered the phone and the caller said who it was.

As an adult, I have had one practical joke played on me, also via telephone, and I thought it was hilarious. Well, maybe I was mad for a few minutes, but THEN I thought it was hilarious.

In 1979, as a pretty new lawyer at the Attorney General’s Office, I got assigned a case representing the California Supreme Court and the State Controller. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time, Rose Bird, was a very controversial figure who people either loved or hated. She was well-known to everyone in the state. (In contrast, now I would bet that most people in California could not name the Chief Justice.) A right-wing group had sued the Controller to prevent him from paying the justices their salaries if they had cases which were older than 90 days, pursuant to a provision in the state Constitution. The justices were real parties in interest, because it was their salaries that were at stake. Most of the justices were independently wealthy, so they weren’t concerned about getting their salaries on time. Rose Bird, however, was not. She actually needed her salary to live on.

In a ruling that shocked everyone, the trial judge granted the injunction ordering the Controller not to pay their salaries. I immediately filed an appeal. While I was working on the appellate brief, I got a phone call in my office from a man who identified himself as the clerk of the California Supreme Court. He said the Chief Justice was very upset about the case and wanted to talk with me. When could I come to San Francisco for a meeting? We set a date and a time. I was nervous about the meeting, but very excited too. Here I was, a 27-year-old kid, getting a one-on-one with the great Rose Bird! I started running around my floor telling everyone I saw. Someone suggested that I tell my supervisor, and that he might want to go to the meeting with me. I started off to his office to find him. On the way, I bumped into a guy named Art Scotland, who worked on another floor, in another division. He said, “I hear you’re going to meet with Rose Bird.” “Oh yes,” I babbled excitedly, never stopping to wonder how he could possibly know about it. I told him I couldn’t stop to chat, I had to run off to tell my supervisor. He said “Suzy . . .” in an urgent tone of voice, and then proceeded to repeat verbatim what the clerk had said to me. I stopped. What? How did he know? Then I saw the big grin on his face. He was the one who had called me, not the court clerk, and I didn’t really have a meeting with Rose Bird. Luckily he tipped me off before I made a fool of myself in front of my supervisor.

A few years later Art Scotland was appointed to the Court of Appeal, and eventually became the Presiding Justice. But over the years, whenever I have seen him at legal functions, we always have a good laugh about my nonexistent meeting with Rose Bird.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Suzy. As soon as you mentioned telephone pranks, I had a big grin, because those were exactly the sort of silly pranks that we all played back then. So, as they say, thanks for the memories; you really hit a chord. (This is why I love Retro. ) And I even remember the “refrigerator running” gag as one of the standard repertoire.

    You are also absolutely right, now that I think about it, as to how Caller ID has killed the prank call industry — unless maybe you’re a telemarketer or otherwise know how to block your number. Yet another unintended consequence of modern technology.

    I also remember Rose Bird, though mainly because of the memorable name. That was a terrific prank because, like most good pranks, there was enough of an aura of believability to its premise for it to work. But glad that you were tipped off in time and glad — but not surprised — that you were such a good sport about it, at least after a short while.

    Finally, I love that you found a photo of an age-appropriate phone to go with your story. I assume you have also seen articles about contemporary kids being presented with rotary phones and having no idea how to get them to work. (Hint: it’s called “dialing.”)

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, John. Glad to know that you made phony phone calls too. I first tried to find a photo of a bunch of kids gathered around a phone, but the search for “kids on the phone” just yielded (no surprise) pics of kids on their cellphones. So I settled for a hand dialing a rotary phone.

      Hope the ELO song of the title didn’t give you another earworm, or maybe it would be good if it replaced Both Sides Now running around your brain.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Well, a good choice of pictures, though I am wondering if googling that “Telephone Hour” scene from “Bye Bye Birdie” would have gotten you some images of kids on phones back in the day.

        And I’m afraid that ELO just doesn’t match Judy Collins in earworm-ability. At least in my brain.

  2. John Zussman says:

    Your descriptions of what we called “crank calls” took me right back, from the almost scripted dialogue (we used both of your examples) to the peals of laughter at the end. You’re right, that whole genre of pranks was dependent on lack of Caller ID or even answering machines so that everyone HAD to answer their phone when it rang.

    I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me to sign you up for a fake meeting with Rose Bird as a joke. But I’m glad you developed the perspective to laugh at it. And you’re right, I remember Rose Bird but I have no idea who the current chief justice is. Even three minutes after Googling her, I still can’t recall her name!

    • Suzy says:

      I’m very pleased to learn that you made those phone calls too. It really seems like a universal part of growing up in our generation.

      I wasn’t sure I could make the Rose Bird story come across, especially because it required a lengthy set-up, but it really is the funniest thing that has ever happened to me. Maybe a prank that only a lawyer could love.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good one, Suzy. I don’t think I ever had the nerve to make crank calls, but I think I may have been with friends who did. The problem with John S’s suggestion for the “Telephone Hour” from “Birdie” (at least in the play) is that the kids were in a tower device using Princess hand sets with cords, but no phones!. So I think your photo is just right.

    I love your lawyer prank. Glad you were intercepted before you made the journey and that you both could laugh about it for years to come.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Betsy. I was not a very brave kid, but the appeal of those calls was that they were so anonymous. There wasn’t any worry about our voices being recognized, because we picked people out of the phone book who didn’t know us. And yes, the Rose Bird prank would not have been funny if I had actually shown up at the Supreme Court in San Francisco for a meeting I didn’t really have!

  4. But what happened to your salaries? You couldn’t have worked for free for the rest of your career!!! Working backward, your telephone pranks brought it all back. I, too, have no idea what was so funny about trick calls, but I recall rolling on the floor until my ribs and belly ached. What was that? Favorites included calling grocery and drug stores and asking if they had Prince Albert [tobacco] in a can? Inevitably they’d say ‘yes,’ and the obvious response was… yeah, you guessed it… “Well, let him out!” Haw haw haw haw.

    I admired that you thought of a prank played on you! That puts this prompt in a whole new perspective. I probably would have believed it, too. Quite credible.

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you for your comment. It wasn’t my (our) salaries at stake, it was the Supreme Court Justices’ salaries. The ruling was that they couldn’t get paid if they had cases that had been submitted for longer than 90 days. I did get it overturned ultimately, but for a while they didn’t get paid.

      Happy to know that you made these calls too. The Prince Albert line is about as hilarious as the refrigerator one. That feeling of laughing til it hurt was great – too bad we can’t recapture it so easily as adults.

  5. Funny story Suzy, and sweet that even a smart lawyer starts out young and naive!

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