My first year of college, I lived in a dorm. It sucked, a lot, and so when my friend Paula asked me if I’d like to go in on an apartment with her and her (incredibly cute) friend Heather, I said heck yes. We each took a utility: Paula had the gas bill, Heather had electric, and I had the phone. I bought a telephone and an answering machine at Lechmere and we recorded a cutesy outgoing message.
Within minutes, we had our first call: a guy looking for Abbey Auto Rental. I told him he had the wrong number, and hung up. He called back immediately: Abbey Auto Rental? Nope, me again. What number are you trying to reach?
He read off my new phone number. I said, “Well, that’s the number here, but this is a private residence.”
He said, “Well, I guess you’re f—ed, because there’s a half-page ad for Abbey Auto Rental in the Yellow Pages with that number. Lots of luck.”
I grabbed the Yellow Pages and flipped to the car rental section. Sure enough, it was our number. I guessed they had gone out of business fairly recently, for the ad to still be included in the phone book.
So we changed our cutesy outgoing message to say, “Sorry, this is NOT Abbey Auto Rental. They are out of business. You’ve reached Dave, Paula, and Heather. Please leave a message.” It made no difference whatsoever; people kept leaving messages for Abbey Auto Rental.
At the end of the year, Paula and Heather moved out, and Dan and Jorma moved in. Jorma used to enjoy messing with the callers. He would take down their credit card number and make a reservation, promising free delivery, just as it said in the ad. Then he would go off to class. When the reservation time rolled around, the customer would call back, furious at the absence of their rental car, and frequently I would be the one to answer the phone.
Irate customer: Where the hell is my car?
Dave: Sorry, Abbey Auto Rental went out of business two years ago.
Irate customer: What are you talking about? I gave my credit card number to someone this morning.
Dave: You must have been talking to the ghost of Mister Abbey! WoooOOOOoooo!
Irate customer: I’m coming down there to kick your ass!
Dave: OK, see you soon. You have the address from the ad, right? How are you going to get here with no car?
Irate customer: RRRAAAAAAAA
When Jorma moved out and Michelle moved in, we decided it was time to change the outgoing message again. We left longer and longer messages, but the calls kept coming. They had phone books! The phone books were three years old! Abbey Auto Rental must exist. It must!
Finally, I went out and bought a longer tape for the outgoing message. I recorded “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground. This song is eight minutes and sixteen seconds long. The left channel is the band noodling around aimlessly on their guitars, and the right channel is a male voice with a British accent, telling a story about a man who mailed himself to his girlfriend. We told all our friends to just hit the star key to bypass the outgoing message.
This, finally, eliminated the car rental messages. I left the answering machine that way, and tried to forget about it. Almost a year later, I came home to a light blinking on the machine. It was the peevish voice of a little old lady, who had clearly listened to the entire story, including the part where the girlfriend uses a sheet metal cutter to open the box, accidentally killing her boyfriend. The message said, “That’s a very nice story, but it doesn’t help me; I want to rent a car.”