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.”