This time of year, every few days or so, my cellphone lights up with a call from St. Paul. I'm usually in the middle of something here at the advertising agency, often a meeting, but I always answer. And here's where you'd expect me to say I answer because I know who's calling. But I don't.
I just know why.
The voice on the other end of the line invariably belongs to an elderly person, someone who responds to my, "Hi, this is Mike," with a polite but firm request for me to hurry up and install their furnace.
I tell these callers what I've known for years, that it's another Mike they're trying to reach, the one who lives on the other side of the river and shares my exact phone number, save for the area code. There's frequently a pause as they process what they're hearing, and then, without fail, come several painfully heartfelt apologies, with me tacking an "It's okay," onto the tail end of each one.
After saying their farewells and perhaps -- what the hell -- sharing an additional anecdote or two about the crazy coincidences one encounters in life, they sign off.
And then they call me again.
I remain cordial and repeat the instructions, which they didn't really hear the first time because they were so busy being embarrassed. I've never received a third call, but I'm not convinced it's because these old Midwesterners have succeeded in dialing the real Mike. I think it might be because they're so horrified by the prospect of getting a number wrong three times in a row, they've decided they'd rather just lie down on their kitchen floors and freeze to death.
I realize I may be thinking about this too much.
But, then again, maybe not. After all, these are practitioners of a dying ritual, one that's been reinforced annually since their depression-era childhoods. They change out screens for big heavy storm windows, they gather bags of leaves and stack them tightly around their foundations, they even re-caulk. And then, with admirable foresight, they check to see whether the furnace is up to snuff. These could be the last living examples of what America used to call self-reliant human beings. Even if it isn't really a matter of life and death, as a person whose lawn and driveway are tended to by strangers, who am I to swipe my finger across the Ignore button?
Sometimes the requests for help come via voicemail. In these cases, I dutifully call Mike's customers back and let them know he won't be coming until they phone the right number. At times they don't answer, and I'm forced to leave a voicemail of my own. It's only a conference room full of glaring colleagues that keeps me from asking for a call back, just to make sure they got my message.
Does the other Mike take calls from my clients? Do the people at Subaru phone and ask him about the latest commercials we've produced? Does he answer their questions, blush over their praise, address their concerns? Has he ever told Jack Link of Jack Link's Beef Jerky that he'll be right over with the ductwork?
I know what you're thinking. Why doesn't he just call the guy? I've thought about it, of course, but I'd be just as stymied about what to say as Mike's customers are when they first find out they've dialed up an ad guy. Do I ask him to change the number upon which he's obviously built quite a thriving enterprise? Seems he'd have just as much right to ask me to change mine. Do I suggest that he always print his area code in extra bold, double-underlined numbers? In this part of the country, that kind of typography feels a lot like yelling at people, and I don't think he'd go for it.
No, I'll just sit here and wait for the next call, like some volunteer manning the switchboard at an everlasting pledge drive.
That is, unless you happen to see this yourself, Mike, and you have a better idea, in which case, I hope you'll give me a ring.
I think you know the number.
Mike Lescarbeau is chief executive of ad agency Carmichael Lynch.