The ghosts in my phone

My phone number hasn't always been mine, and I still receive strange messages meant for its previous owners

Phone ghosts.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Despite my best efforts, I occasionally receive mail addressed to Carol, the woman from whose estate my wife and I purchased our house three years ago. Carol, who died in 2016 at the glorious age of 99, had lived here since the Roosevelt administration and died in the room in which I am writing this. Even if her son had not given me helpful advice concerning the pre-Depression boiler system, I would know a great deal about Carol, who was universally beloved in town. Some of her grandchildren live next door; she worshiped at the Episcopal church down the street for some 70 years. The neighbors all remember the backyard in the days before she had allowed it to become a half-acre forest, in which I discovered the ruins of a gazebo and some makeshift garden trellises (actually ancient copper pipes). Besides, I get her mail: solicitations from the Sierra Club and other conservation groups, and from places like the Mystery Writers Association of America, whose conferences she seems to have been fond of attending.

When we first moved in, I did my best to call these organizations and inform them that Carol was deceased. For this reason, with the exception of one especially persistent environmentalist outfit, what had once been a steady stream of mail is beginning to dry up.

This problem — if, indeed, it is a problem to receive occasional furtive glimpses of the lives of persons we will never meet — is harder to deal with in the case of inherited phone numbers than it is with addresses. People sell their homes and have their mail forwarded. There is no equivalent of mail forwarding for cellphones. Numbers are assigned at random by the carriers, and when service is discontinued they are handed out again and again. The only way to ensure that anyone to whom you have given your old number — or anyone who might receive it from from a third party, such as a debt collector to whom it gets passed from a hospital — knows how to reach you is to share the new one.

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I have had the same phone number since I purchased my first cellphone in the summer of 2014. More than half a decade on, I continue to receive text messages and occasionally even phone calls for two persons who had the number before I did.

"Darlene" has been a financial supporter of the Democratic Party, and of other, mostly state-level charities in Virginia, who are slowly but surely coming to accept that she has not had this number since the beginning of Barack Obama's second term. She visits doctors very frequently for what seem to be non-serious conditions: The reminders about upcoming appointments seem to come mainly from dentists and optometrists. At one time she seemed to miss a great deal of these, for I used to get tut-tutting reminders and even threats suggesting that she would be billed in full for future appointments not canceled in advance.

From the above I find that I have a fairly well-established mental image of Darlene. Statistics confirm my impression that her real first name (not the one I have given) was reasonably popular 50 years ago. I see her as a white woman in late middle age, not much older or younger than 50 or 55. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me I have always pictured her as unmarried. It seems to me likely that she does not have a college degree and has probably worked for a number of employers in more or less the same field: a woman who has spent most of her life in the professional world in clerical or minor administrative positions, where her quiet, poorly remunerated competence makes up for a great deal of male blundering. Nowadays one would probably refer to Darlene as a "Karen." All in all, I like Darlene, or at least the sketch of her I have effortlessly produced on the basis of a few facts.

"Herman," who seems to have had the number after Darlene, seems to me a somewhat seedier character. His age is more difficult to estimate than Darlene's, but I am inclined to discount the notion that he is in his 80s even though his real first name reached the height of its popularity at beginning of the Second World War. I think of him as being aged 65 or so. He, too, appears to favor the older of our two major political parties.

On the plainest interpretation of the evidence it would seem that Herman is a landlord of sorts or someone otherwise involved in the real estate business. Text messages arrive for him occasionally inquiring about certain buildings — duplexes, it seems — he owns from people who invariably describe themselves as "realtors" hoping to visit them. The word is always prefixed with "local" or "out-of-town" or some other appellation, and the requests are always oddly specific about times, as if they were aware of some pre-existing schedule.

I have long harbored dark suspicions that Herman's actual line of work is what used to be referred to as pimping. On this interpretation the "realtors" are actually johns who are arranging liaisons with the woman who lives or at least works out of the addresses in question. But perhaps I am only revealing my ignorance of how criminals (and for that matter small-time real estate moguls) operate. For all I know Herman really has spent the last few years being asked on a purely speculative basis whether it would be convenient to tour unremarkable-looking multi-family dwellings in the suburbs of Northern Virginia at the last minute. My limited reading on sex trafficking in the Washington, D.C., metro area leaves me with the impression that pimps and johns do not exchange text messages.

There is no such ambiguity in the case of "Craig," the small-time drug dealer for whom my wife sometimes receives messages. The most common one is some variation of "You still got stuff?" Craig appears to have incurred a massive amount of outstanding medical debt with a nearby hospital and to have defaulted on at least one car loan. His account for the PlayStation online platform is still linked to his old phone number, a fact of which my wife is reminded whenever he or someone else attempts to purchase a new video game, usually late at night. I somehow doubt that Craig is anyone's idea of a hardened criminal. It seems to me more likely that he is a working-class man about 10 years younger than Darlene who works as an auto mechanic or some other area of blue-collar employment in which there is a fairly regular trade in prescription pills. My wife believes that he gives his old phone number intentionally to doctors' offices.

Like Craig, "Jasmine" is involved with drugs, but hers are prescribed to her and obtained at pharmacies that occasionally send her reminders about having the prescriptions renewed. My wife thinks that of our four distant acquaintances Jasmine is the most pathetic, in the older sense of the word. Many of the messages she receives on Jasmine's behalf are hawking various dietary supplements; others are links to dubious-sounding online weight-loss programs. A distressing number of them say things like "Get your sex partner interested in you again with these four easy tips!" On the basis of this and other evidence my wife and I agree that Jasmine is in her late 20s or early 30s, that she is somewhat overweight, and that the men in her life have treated her badly.

These one-sided correspondences are not, I take it, entirely representative of this curiously under-discussed phenomenon, which often involves bitter recriminations from ex-boyfriends or pleas from distant relations. Upon mentioning Darlene to friends I have heard about birthday greetings, apologies for offenses committed long ago, and even messages of condolence meant for persons other than themselves. This, I suppose, is easy enough to imagine: a long-estranged brother or cousin looking to make amends, a poor neglected aunt wishing her niece well, a former colleague offering sympathy upon hearing second-hand about the death of a parent or a child — millions of these communications must be sent every day. It is painful to imagine what the senders must think when (as one assumes is often the case) they go unanswered.

It may well be that I am totally mistaken in my conjectures about the persons I have mentioned above. A good question is whether, given the chance, I should like to know the truth about them. Here I am inclined to ambivalence. Surely the fact that I cannot discover whether, say, Craig is actually a well-to-do lawyer or Darlene a mother of six on the basis of these messages forms a good part of their appeal. Besides, I do not think there is any harm in speculating about them and their would-be recipients. Among other things, they are a welcome reminder that, even in the internet age, human life is as mysterious, as shot through with unknown fleeting joys and bizarre private afflictions, as it has always been.

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