Wrong Numbers


Image of a black desktop telephone


Andrea Scarpino

Los Angeles


When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I used to get phone calls and messages pretty regularly from an elderly-sounding woman looking for “Bernadette.” No matter how many times I explained that Bernadette doesn’t live at this number, the woman kept calling, sometimes talking with me directly, sometimes just leaving messages on my answering machine. In time, I started to wonder about Bernadette, where she lived, how she knew the woman who called, if she had given the caller the wrong number on purpose to avoid her calls. When the calls eventually stopped, I found myself worrying about both Bernadette and her caller, worrying that maybe one of them had died. In a strange way, these two women I never met had become my friends.

In the past several months, I’ve received a new spate of calls for “Clyde,” mostly from collection agencies and banks. Fifth Third Bank, which is headquartered in Ohio is especially tenacious, calling Clyde about some recent activity on your account dozens of times even though I’ve told multiple agents that I don’t have a Fifth Third account and am not named Clyde.

The first couple of calls, I just found annoying. But after weeks of messages at 6am, return calls, begging agents to take my number off their account, and sometimes three or four messages a day, I find myself feeling more and more protective of Clyde. I have no idea why Fifth Third is trying to reach him, but I assume it’s because his accounts are overdrawn or he hasn’t paid his mortgage—something financially ominous. And their calls have long ago surpassed my definition of harassment. So I find myself worrying about him, worrying that he has other collection agencies actually reaching him, leaving him messages around the clock about his accounts.

And I know it’s silly, but with each additional phone call, I feel more and more like I should do something to help Clyde. Just like I secretly hoped that Bernadette would call one day so we could laugh about the screaming messages her friend left on my machine, I want Clyde to call, to tell me if he gave these different agencies the wrong number on purpose, or if he had my number at one point (it would have been 6 or 7 years ago now) and never updated their files when he got a new number. I want to know if they’re calling because he’s lost his job and has fallen behind on bills, if he has a balloon mortgage, if he lost money in the stock market collapse. I want to know if there’s anything I can do to help.

Strangers, of course, come in an out of our lives all the time and we hardly ever think about them, what they spend time doing, what they eat for lunch. But after someone’s name has been spoken again and again to me on the phone, I’ve found I start to feel an odd intimacy with her. I find myself hoping that Bernadette and her caller are still around and have reconnected over a weekly pinochle game, that Clyde is doing okay and these collection agency calls are a big misunderstanding. And I find myself wondering if once in awhile, we should all call a wrong number just to see who is on the other line, just to connect for a moment with someone totally unexpected and ask about his day.


Andrea Scarpino is the west coast Bureau Chief of POTB. You can visit her at:


0 thoughts on “Wrong Numbers

  1. Andrea, you are insightful–this is exactly what happens when people are unemployed, have put their medical expenses on credit card, etc. We spend a lot of time dealing with finances and the credit card companies, food stamp and utilities applications (must reapply periodically), mortgage negotiation and student loan companies, now trying to get charity assistance for the kids for the holidays, etc. We’re considering canceling our phone service, except we need it for some things.


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