Wrong Number

1344190891When I worked for the Minneapolis Police Department, I began receiving strange calls.

Sometimes the callers left exotic messages in my voice-mail, other times they just hung up whenever I answered the phone.

This went on for months.

Although the calls came from different people, they followed a similar pattern. A shy, heavily accented voice would ask, “Uuuuh, Mista Chen?”

I responded politely, “You have the wrong number, this is Mr. Schiller.”

This often sparked an argument over my identity.

“No Mista Schiller, Mista Chen!”

“Sorry, wrong number.”

“No wrong, Mista Chen.”

“You have called 612-XXX-XXXX, please check your number.”

“Ya, ya, Mista Chen!”

“Sorry, wrong number…”

At this point, things broke down. They desperately refused to accept that they had the wrong number and would not hang up. As the banter continued, they grew more confused and panicked. I too became reluctant to hang up as if to do so would sever a tenuous connection that for them was a lifeline.

At the time, flight after flight of refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos arrived daily in our city. These people knew tragedy far beyond anything I could imagine, so I strove to be as patient and polite as I could while still getting my point across; they had the wrong number.

Yet they kept calling.

If I stepped out of the office for an hour, I would be greeted by a furiously blinking voice-mail light upon my return and not one of those messages would be for me.

I complained to communications about this. They just passed the buck. No, they swore, they were not routing these calls to me. I asked if I could forward the calls to someone who spoke the caller’s language; but no. Our translators were over-whelmed.

Next, I called the major social service agencies to see if my number lurked in their Rolodex by mistake.

No luck there either.

I did what I could, changing my voice-mail message to inform the callers that they had reached Mr. Schiller, not Mr. Chen – but the number of calls kept increasing.

Then one winter day, I returned from a morning of useless meetings to find a thin, white haired Asian gentleman at my desk, using my phone.

“Mr. Chen?” I guessed.

He raised a finger, signaling me to wait while he completed his business.

I had no intention of doing so, but since I worked for a para-military organization, I knew precisely how to handle this gentlemen. I went downstairs to complain to my lieutenant.

“Greg,” she said, “you’re an idiot. EVERYONE knows who Mr. Chen is.”

“Everyone doesn’t spend their lives in meetings,” I told her, “who the hell is Mr. Chen?”

“He’s a fixer,” my lieutenant said.


You see, in much of the world, civil service jobs are commodities to be bought, sold and traded for cash and favors. Often the work has no salary attached, so the office holders compensate themselves by bribery and extortion.

In those places, the last thing you want to do is interact with the government, so you employ a fixer to safely navigate the system for you. These people are experts in knowing who to contact, who not to contact and how to match a bribe for a service.

In America, with its odd language and confusing customs, Mr. Chen found his talents were needed more than ever.

In Laos, he may be called a fixer but here we have a fancier title for what he does, we call it community liaison.

I told my lieutenant I understood the situation but pleaded, “Can’t we get him his own phone?”

“I got a better idea,” she told me, “You get a new phone and let him use yours.”

Author: Almost Iowa


26 thoughts on “Wrong Number”

  1. This was fantastic! Growing up watching the way the military works from a minor’s point of view, I’m surprised the LT didn’t send him out to cut the grass with manicure scissors…and that would have ruined a fabulous ending.

        1. There is a rather famous video of Dotty rescuing a kid who fell through the ice in Powderhorn Park. She crawled out onto the ice and held him up until the rescue crew arrived. Every time they air it on COPS, she gets calls.

  2. Great story!! I can’t help but think you were talking about the US when you said (paraphrased) “in some parts of the world, civil service works by bribes and fixers”.

  3. I never caught my Mr Chen’s name, but now I’m wondering if he has a key and uses our phone when we’re out. Still, if he does he’s a good house sitter.

    1. I doubt if I could pronounce Mr. Chen’s given name, much less spell it correctly. I was once presented with a business card containing indecipherable script and unpronounceable name written in English below it.

      As I struggled with the name, the guy said, “flip it over.”

      The other side read: call me Bob.

  4. Perfectly written. The pace and frustration mounted as you intended, the surprise and cause were revealed to intended effect, and I learned something, which makes me enjoy a post even more. You even managed to evoke sympathy for your subjects from whatever vestigial chambered organ remains in my misanthropic midline.

    Your post was so good it almost compensated for my teeth-grinding at each ignorant utterance of “Wrong number.”, versus “Sorry, number good but no Chen.”, or similar. But had you answered so back then, answer good but no post.

    1. You even managed to evoke sympathy for your subjects from whatever vestigial chambered organ remains in my misanthropic midline.

      Ooooooh, I gotta get me one of them. 🙂

      We do have fun with these comments, don’t we?

  5. Excellent post, Greg. Some things never change….fixers were in place for the wave of immigrants in New York City too. The Mexican laborers in my small country town have their “liaisons” as well, Spanish-speaking “lawyers” who take a lot of their hard-money with rather intangible results from what we can see.

    1. I would love to be a fixer for the college bound…. Here would be my spiel:

      “Gosh, given your grades, I couldn’t get you the loans and grants you wanted but I can get what you need for a community or vocational college

      I know it’s a raw deal and a step-down and you won’t receive the same education you would at a $40,000 a year college, so here is my advice: read the classics, study art, study history, read the great philosophers, paint, blog, watch art films and generally educate yourself. You will not be able to brag about where you went to school but you will be able to brag that as pipe-fitter you know more about literature, art, philosophy and writing than most ivy-league grads.”

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