“No one likes a practical joker,” my mother had often warned me — but, hey, my mother was out shopping. We lived in suburban New Jersey. It was a dreary day, rainy and cold like that day in the beginning of “The Cat in the Hat,” and there was nothing to do. None of my friends were home. So I picked up the phone and ordered a pizza for my neighbor across the street.
I walked to the front window where I could peer at my neighbor’s house from behind the curtains. But there is no instant gratification with this sort of prank, and patience has never been one of my virtues. So, after about five minutes, I got up and ordered another pizza from a different shop. Then — either to kill time or to satisfy some vague sense of proportion — I called a third pizzeria. This time, under the assumed name of André Breton, I ordered two pies, one with sausage and one with mushrooms and green peppers.
Then I went back to wait at the window.
When the first delivery truck — from Domino’s — arrived and the driver trudged up the walk carrying the pie I had ordered, I felt a familiar rush of excitement, the giddy thrill of the voyeur. I had a relationship with this man wetly slogging up the walk, but he didn’t know it. I had secretly orchestrated his mission, and knew something about how it would end — that is, in disappointment. (It occurred to me that this was exactly how God must feel all day long.) Now I watched my neighbor open the door, and even from that distance I could see his puzzled expression as he shook his head and slowly closed the door. Like Sisyphus trudging down the hill for his rock, the Domino’s guy returned to his truck with the noble, dejected air of one who knows that in spite of all his efforts, the fates have singled him out for misery.
He pulled his truck into the road just as the truck from Tony’s Pizzeria arrived. The Domino’s guy slowed down for a moment, as if to assess the situation, but then apparently decided to wash his hands of the whole thing and continued on his way. The Tony’s guy got out of the truck, paused for a moment to cast a long perplexed gaze at his competitor’s truck, shrugged, and removed a pie from the passenger side of his own truck.
When my neighbor opened the door, I observed with fascination how quickly his expression could change from mild surprise to extreme irritation. He shook his head emphatically, and then peered over the driver’s shoulders, as if looking for a hidden camera. It was at that moment the third truck arrived, pulling up right behind the other truck.
My neighbor, who has a short temper — believe me, I know — pushed past the Tony’s guy and stormed out towards the third truck, gesticulating angrily. Then he suddenly stopped in the middle of his lawn and mute with rage intently scanned the houses around him, as if dormant psychic powers might help him locate the culprit. For a tense moment, his gaze passed directly over my window, and I held my breath.
The moment passed, the drivers were dismissed, and after my laughter subsided, I considered calling another place. Sure: why not make a day of it? In the heavily Italian area where I grew up there are more pizzerias than, um… I don’t know… something. Starbucks. Fire hydrants. Chinese restaurants. Whatever. There are a lot. And I was prepared to arrange for every single one of them to visit my neighbor. But just as I reached for the phone, it suddenly rang all by itself.
I picked up the phone and a man said, “Hello, Mr. Breton, this is Ray’s Pizza. Did you order two pies for delivery about half an hour ago?” His tone was suspiciously smug, the way it is when someone asks a question that they already know the answer to.
Uh-oh, I thought. I’d given them a false callback number, so how did they know to call me here? But I kept my head. “This is the Duchamp residence,” I said calmly. “You must have the wrong number.”
He laughed snidely, and my heart began to pound. “No, I don’t think so,” he said triumphantly. “You see, we have caller ID.”
Oh Jesus. I had forgotten all about caller ID. It hadn’t existed the last time I’d done this. I think it’s probably important to explain that the events in this narrative took place at the dawn of the digital era. Cell phones were the size of bread loaves and were used exclusively by stockbrokers; the Internet ran on tin cans and string and was used exclusively by nerds. A phone was a landline phone, period, a stationary object hardwired into the guts of your house, or, in this case, my mother’s house. Caller ID was the gee-whiz technology of the day, and I had completely forgotten about its recent proliferation.
This was not good. My mother was due to arrive home within the hour, and I didn’t want her to find out how I’d spent the afternoon. It wasn’t that I was afraid of punishment. It was shame. I was really getting too old for this kind of thing. After all, it’s one thing when your ten year old finds it amusing to play games with the telephone. But when your son is a twenty-eight year old man… well, the first word that comes to mind is disturbed.
There was urgency, then, in getting rid of this guy. As an experienced prankster I knew the rule of about getting caught: no matter how incriminating the evidence, deny everything. And I knew the corollary of this rule: believe your own lies or you won’t sound convincing.
I took a deep breath, summoned up an appropriate sense of righteous indignation, and replied, “Listen, buddy, I don’t care what your caller ID says. I didn’t order any pizza.” With shaking hands, I hung up the phone and exhaled.
Then the phone rang again.
“Hello, this is Ray’s again. Look, maybe you didn’t order the pizza, but someone from your line did. Do you have any children?”
What I said next was very stupid.
I said yes.
I suppose I was trying to play the part of the indignant suburbanite to the hilt — in fact, I was imagining that I was my neighbor across the street — and, after all, he had children. “But,” I added quickly, “Josh wouldn’t do something like that.” Of course, the phrase something like that implied that I knew more about this scheme than I was letting on, but the man seemed not to notice. He was more concerned with my son — my son! — Josh. He was sure he’d found the culprit.
I was now burdened with defending the honor of a son I didn’t have. I began to panic, and my usual reaction to nervousness is to start babbling. Somehow, during our conversation, it became established that Josh was eleven, a good student, that he hadn’t been home for at least an hour, that he was playing with someone named Benjamin. I was beginning to have trouble remembering it all, so I tried to turn the conversation away from Josh Duchamp by disparaging the supposed merits of Caller ID. I claimed to have seen an episode of 60 Minutes in which the accuracy of Caller ID had been tinged with doubt. “Oh yeah?” the man countered. “Well, I’ve never any problems with it.”
“Well, now you have,” I said, and hung up again. Five minutes passed, and I decided I was off the hook. Then the phone rang again. It was like a leak I couldn’t plug.
It was a different person this time. “This is Officer Antonelli of the Closter Police,” a gruff voice said. I was now in such a panicky state that I didn’t soberly consider the extreme unlikelihood that I was speaking to an actual police officer. I began to wonder if ordering pizza under false pretenses was a punishable crime.
I tried again to blame the caller ID, but the alleged policeman claimed to have expertise on his side. “These are very sophisticated machines,” he told me. “In my experience they are 100 percent accurate.” He certainly sounded like a cop, or at the very least like someone who had watched a lot of cop shows. The topic of conversation turned back to the character of my fictional son Josh, and I was beginning to doubt that Josh was innocent.
I began to lose hope. I was going to jail, and Josh would grow up fatherless. I took advantage of a pause in our conversation to make a desperate bid for freedom. I sighed dramatically, and in a weary voice, I said, “Well, I guess we’re going to have to take this to court. Give me your badge number and I’ll have my lawyer contact you.”
There was a long pause on the telephone. Clearing his throat, the would-be cop adopted a kind of blustery boys-will-be-boys tone and said, “Well, Mr. Duchamp, there’s no need to go that far. I’m sure you believe your son didn’t do it, but I think you should talk to him when he gets home. Oh, and I’m sorry to say that Ray’s won’t accept any more calls from this number.”
Yeah, his bluff was called, but I felt no sense of triumph. I quickly agreed to the offered terms and hung up the phone. For a long time I sat quietly in the kitchen, unhappily considering the current trajectory of my life.
Alright, I admit that this was not my finest moment. Ordering pizzas for the neighbors is childish and immature, a temptation that most adults probably have little trouble resisting. But try to understand my state of mind. I was in my late twenties, and after years of living on my own, I’d moved back home to save money while finishing my long-neglected undergraduate degree in the city. At the time of the pizza incident, I’d been living at my mother’s house for nearly a year, and life in the suburbs was beginning to unhinge me. It’s not true that you can’t go back home, but it is true that when you do, you revert to the mental age you were when you last lived there. You complain that there’s nothing to eat, you watch a lot of TV and feel bored all the time, and that’s when you start remembering how you entertained yourself when you last lived here.
As a teenager I was a consummate prankster. From the ages of nine to sixteen, I logged many, many hours on the phone, annoying random strangers. My favorite gag was to call someone in the small hours of the night, and when they groggily answered, I’d say perkily, Hi! I got up for a sandwich…. What did you get up for? This never failed to provoke a gratifying string of four-letter words. During those school years, my neighbors received many unwanted pizzas, as well as magazines subscriptions, Franklin Mint products, and unscheduled visits from plumbers.
Another favorite, of course, was Ring-n-Run, which has surely existed as long as there have been doors. My compadres and I tried all the variations on this childhood classic, including, of course, the infamous burning bag trick. You know the one — you place a bag of dogshit on your neighbor’s doorstep, set it on fire, ring the doorbell, and hide. In theory, when your neighbor opens the door, he will see the fire, shout “Good heavens, there’s a fire on the doorstep!” and stamp it out in hurried panic — thus baptizing his shoes with crap. It’s a brilliant, elegant scheme that never worked once. Either the fire would go out two seconds after I lit it, or — worse — no one would answer the door and I’d have to go stamp it out myself and spend the next two hours sitting on the curb with a sharp stick, scraping shit out of my sneaker treads.
The pranks got more sophisticated as I got older. I developed an unusual (and I believe unprecedented) stunt involving an egg. From grammar school on, my friends and I had spent every winter merrily hurling snowballs at cars, but there was no summertime equivalent of this happy sport – except for hurling rocks, which was too heinous even for us. So one June day, while we were hanging out at my friend Paul’s house, I tossed a length of kite string over a power line that traversed our street. I then took an egg, wrapped it in a paper towel, and tied it to one end of the string. With the other end of the string, I hoisted the egg to dangle about four feet above the road, or roughly the level of a car’s windshield. I secured the loose end of the string by tying it to a telephone pole, and then we all ran into Paul’s garage, shut the door, and stood at the window to await the results.
Paul and I lived on Winston Road, a slow residential street. Cars were rare and cautious. The first few cars confronted by the mystery of what closely resembled a scrotum floating above the road slowed down to a halt, and then carefully drove around it. No one got out to investigate. They didn’t know what it was, and they didn’t want to know what it was.
We were getting bored with the whole thing when we heard it: the sound of a car roaring up Winston at what must have been 60 miles per hour. We crowded around the window in anticipation. A white Ferrari flashed past us and whipped straight through the egg in a glorious burst of yellow goo — and just kept going.
We stared after the car in awestruck wonder. Was the driver not in the least concerned about what had just splattered across his windshield? Did he think it the droppings of an enormous pigeon? The spattered body of a grotesquely large insect? We pondered the matter silently as we gazed at the forlorn sight of a gooey paper towel undulating at the end of a string.
For a few weeks, we became obsessed with this egg business, moving the site of our experiments to Danny’s house on Grant Road, one of the busiest thoroughfares in town. There, we suspended all sorts of things above the road: not just eggs (although they remained the favorite) but also grapefruits, stuffed animals, and once, a plastic baggy crammed full of oatmeal. There was a much greater likelihood of getting caught on Grant Road, so whenever we were in the process of setting everything up, we made sure to carry a physics textbook, a clipboard, and a pad of graph paper crawling with elaborate trigonometric diagrams. If caught, we planned to say that we were conducting a science project for school, that our construction was intended to demonstrate the properties of angular momentum on objects of varying masses. I can’t imagine what on earth made us think that anyone — especially a cop — would have bought this sorry-ass excuse for creating what was literally an accident waiting to happen.
I really don’t know if the other kids in town devoted such enormous efforts towards irritating other people. It seems to me that my circle of friends was particularly driven towards this anti-social form of entertainment out of a deep, aesthetic revulsion to the suburbs. We subconsciously sensed, in the keep-off-the grass, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s mentality of our town, a kind of Puritanical ideology which passionately embraced both boredom and passive consumption, and which harbored deep suspicions of any form of entertainment outside of sports and lawn maintenance. We longed to escape, but until the day when we could, we devoted ourselves to heroic, quixotic efforts to bring magic and life into this dead world by annoying the hell out of the people who lived there. Many years later, I discovered that a similar impulse had fueled anarchistic art movements throughout the twentieth century, and sensed a kindred spirit in the subversive antics of the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Diggers, the English punks. Not so long ago, I came across the Situationist slogan painted on Parisian walls during the General Strike of May 1968: Down with a world where the guarantee that we won’t die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom. Upon encountering those words, I wished I could travel back in time to deliver that slogan to my teenage self, along with a nice can of red spray paint.
Eventually, of course, we all got our wishes and left for college, a rite of passage so taken for granted that we didn’t even understand what a luxury it was, made possible by the middle-class values that we all held in such contempt. You’d think life away from the suburbs would have freed me at last from my sociopathic tendencies, but alas, it was not so. A dormitory is a nicely encapsulated version of the suburbs, and living among six hundred students and a handful of scared adults lends itself easily to a prankster mentality. Indeed, this was the period when I formed a new group of like-minded friends, and devoted myself to what I will euphemistically refer to as drunken hijinx.
It’s a pity, really. I wish we’d channeled our anger and energy into more productive pursuits – but don’t we always wish that of our younger selves? Many of the friends I knew in college remain among the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. They were well-read, creative, and capable of in-depth discussions on nearly any topic with great energy and wit. Literary, musical, and artistic interests cross-pollinated among us with the feverish intensity of the very young. We were hipster snobs who sneered at the frat houses, but our egg-headed, nihilistic romance with booze and drugs often led us to engage in the kinds of stupid, destructive acts that occasionally earn frat boys a spot in the evening news, as the anchors slowly shake their heads in disgust. We seemed incapable of distinguishing youthfully rebellious acts from those that were pathologically criminal. Spending an evening strolling around the city while carrying a naked, life-size inflatable sex doll is kind of funny. Drunkenly hurling a heavy chair off of a dormitory rooftop is not. There’s a certain subversive charm to defacing random buildings with a spray painted stencil of Mickey Mouse sporting a huge erection – although, in retrospect, I worry that those stencils may have prematurely destroyed the innocence of some young Disney fans. Considerably less charming would be placing a smoke bomb with a delayed cigarette fuse behind a public toilet in a crowded urban café. Well, actually, even thinking about it now, it was just a teensy bit funny when that woman came running out of the bathroom – mysteriously billowing with white smoke — and breathlessly exclaimed, “I don’t understand it! I was just sitting there and the toilet burst into flames!”
Yeah — well, maybe you had to be there.
(Please, kids, for Christ’s fucking sake, do not try this stunt yourself. Not only is there the totally unacceptable risk that you may incur the hospitalization or actual death of other human beings, but you will almost certainly wind up being arrested as an arsonist, or worse, a terrorist. And also, this is exactly why no one likes a practical joker.)
Actually, common sense dictates that I should now officially declare that, um, I am making all this up — and given my ignorance of the statute of limitations and other legalities, it’s probably best to cut short this self-incriminating Catalogue of Shame. Suffice it to say that my grades began to suffer, and I eventually dropped out for several years.
I can think of one incident during this time, however, that’s worth relating. A female friend of mine — who occasionally dabbled in garden-variety college feminism — gave me a bunch of small, rectangular stickers emblazoned with the slogan THIS INSULTS WOMEN. You were supposed to stick them on beer advertisements featuring women with large, sexist breasts.
I put them in my wallet and forgot about them until, one day, I happened to be in the lobby of a K-Mart where there stood an array of those vending machines for kids — the kind where you put in a quarter and get a plastic bubble containing a toy worth considerably less than a quarter. Among the machines, however, was a very unusual apparatus. A glass booth enclosed a mechanical chicken surrounded by brightly colored plastic eggs. When you put in a quarter, the chicken jerked around, cackled once or twice, and a plastic egg containing a toy popped out of slot below. The second I saw it, I whipped out a THIS INSULTS WOMEN sticker and placed it on the center of the glass.
Oh God, it was perfect.
When I later told my friend what I had done with her sticker, she laughed in spite of herself, and observed, “What’s funny about it is that it’s now the sticker itself that insults women.”
For a long time, whenever I was feeling the melancholy gnaw of depression, I would remember that chicken and its double insult, and feel a little better. Years later, when I moved back to the suburbs to finish my degree — that is, around the same time I was ordering pizza as André Breton — I was inspired to print up stickers of my own, as a variation on the THIS INSULTS WOMEN theme. On my computer, I printed up dozens of different labels:
THIS INSULTS SEXISTS
THIS INSULTS JUNKIES
THIS INSULTS AQUATIC MAMMALS
and finally, the all-purpose
THIS INSULTS YOU
I’d stick them on billboards in the subway while I was in the city to attend classes and to work at my part-time crappy job to pay for those classes. No matter how absurd my slogans became I always seemed to find a poster that seemed to scream out for a particular sticker.
My favorite one, though, involved, once again, a chicken. As part of New York State’s campaign against deadbeat dads, there was a clever poster in the bus terminal with the legend WHAT DO YOU CALL A FATHER WHO FLIES THE COOP? above a picture of a chicken wearing sneakers.
I reached into my bag of tricks, and plastered the billboard with a sticker that read: THIS INSULTS POSTAL WORKERS.
I passed that billboard every evening on my dreary commute from school back to the suburbs, and it never failed to cheer me up.
— Tyler C. Gore, a native New Yorker, lives in Brooklyn and has taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College and for Gotham Writers Workshop. His fiction, reviews and essays have appeared in many journals, and he has been listed several times as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays annual anthology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for Creative Writing. He currently serves as editor and Art Director of Literal Latte, a New York-based online literary journal. He has been arrested twice.