THE FIRST call comes midweek, when I am making dinner for friends. The friends, Sherryl and Richard and Lew; the dinner, a pork roast. Sherryl is early, so we can talk. She sits in the kitchen, where good friends sit, as I beat butter and honey into the potatoes, tasting with my fingers as I go along. Outside, it is a damp cold November, but inside there is a feeling of warmth and abundance and friends. Then I get the call. A man's voice, a stranger:

"Hello, Joyce, I have a pair of your panties here . . .," he begins, and the good feeling in the house vanishes and I hang up the phone.

What woman in New York has not received obscene phone calls? They are as common, as random, as a bump in the subway or the men who make sucking noises after you in the street. Most often, you accept them, you get the call, you hang up quietly, the way you know you are supposed to do, and if the calls continue, you have your number unlisted and changed. You do not bother calling the police because you know what the police will say from the other times you've called them: that there is really nothing they can do. You do not bother complaining to the phone company because, after suggesting you change your number, they will say the same thing. So you follow their advice, change your number, and use the whole busines for a fresh line of party talk. "Got this perv who loves me," you'll begin, and then another woman will tell you about the perv who's been bothering her lately, and still another will talk about the woman she knew who actually dated her perv, and y'know he wasn't that much crazier than most guys you meet in New York. And if there's a serious part to these calls, nobody usually acknowledges them, because they are too common, too harmless. Party talk, that's all a perv caller is supposed to deserve, party talk.

And that's the way I plan to regard my call, as an irritant, a nuisance. The call came, it was unpleasant, I hung up. For a few minutes I am upset; for a few minutes I take time to figure it out -- I have just written a first-person column in the Sunday Magazine, it ran with my picture. It obviously attracted a crazy, that's that.

Then I get the second call. Or rather, I come home to find it on my phone-answering machine. Three days after the first call, Sunday afternoon, about 1. Once again, good timing on the part of the perv, for I am in a good mood, have just come in from the gym. Am about to go to a birthday party of a 1-year-old kid. Have a terrific present for the kid, a hobby horse with the head of an alligator. Have named the alligator Alfonse and tied a red ribbon around its neck; a terrific alligator; when I take it home through the Village people in the street smile.

Then I come home to the call. "Squat, Joyce . . .," it begins. It is obscene. It is disgusting. It is filthier than any pornography I have ever seen because it is pornography having to do with debasing and humiliating and fouling another human being -- and maybe because it is aimed at me.

Listening to it, I am enraged. It seems to me that this vicious, abusive, ugly and hateful voice from a man I don't even know is the symbol of everything that's wrong with the way people treat people in New York; of the violence, of the indifference to violence; of the inhumanity. It seems to me that accepting these calls, I am accepting all the other obscenities, from the push in the subway to the murder on the street; that I am being not simply the victim but the person who sees the crime and turns away, the person who does not even get angry anymore.

It takes half an hour for me to calm down enough to go to the party. And when I get there, I'm still mad.

"Got this perv," I say, "and this time, I'm gonna get him."

Certain things are easier when you are a reporter, and one of these things is the phone company and the other one is the police. Nonetheless, I am determined to start the war on the perv as a civilian. The Sunday I get the second phone call, I call my local precinct, the Sixth. "I suggest you change your phone number," the guy at the desk tells me, "there's nothing you can do." I try the phone company. They tell me to call the business office on Monday and also suggest changing my number -- the old story, don't fight it, it's minor, nothing we can do.

So much for being a civilian. I call the head of New York Telephone's public relations. At home. He tells me something can be done; the calls can be traced; I don't even need to keep the caller on the wire for 10 minutes the way they used to do in "Dragnet." He gives my the name of a phone company security manager, John Whitman. When I get off the phone, just for the hell of it, I hook a tape-recording device onto my phone. I already have the phone machine to record messages the perv leaves when I am out. My plan is to record anything he says if he calls when I am home.

Next day Whitman tells me that the phone company can trace calls, provided that certain conditions exist, but that the calls will only be noted by phone number and time made; that the company never taps calls or listens in. He also says that legally, the phone company cannot give me the name of the caller once he's been identified. "But if you're going to prosecute, we give the name to the police, and they'll give you the name right away." And what's the penalty for obscene phone calls? What's the crime, in fact?

The crime, says Whitman, is aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor. Punishable by $1,000 fine or up to a year in prison. But for a first offense, the caller could easily get off with a warning. "This is New York," says Whitman. "We have murderers walking around on the street."

So we begin. I write a letter to Whitman, formally giving the phone company permission to trace calls; his people put on the equipment.

The perv is more than cooperative; he calls as often as three times a day, never speaking to me directly, always leaving messages on my machine. The messages do not change and do not diminish; whatever my day has been, they cast a shadow; hearing them is like walking through Times Square, like being insulted, like being soiled. Still, I feel good that I have the support of my friends in this battle -- "Good for you!" all of them say when they hear. As for the people at the phone company, they are now intrigued with my caller: They've rarely seen a guy who so enjoyed talking to a machine, they say; technology has created a new kind of perv.

And technology will undo him. Within 10 days, the phone company has located the exchange and the neighborhood the calls are coming from. Shortly, they will have a suspect. It's time for me to go to the police.

I am always grateful when people live up to my preconceived notions; it makes for a certain soothing feeling of the predictability of things. For this reason, whenever possible, I try to cover stories wearing a trenchcoat; for this reason, when I go to the Sixth Precinct, I am glad to be assigned Detective Charlie Pendergrass, a cop with his revolver strapped across his chest and a tattoo on each arm. At the same time, I feel apologetic: There are probably 10 old people getting mugged as I take up the time of the police with the relatively minor problem of a few nasty phone calls. On the other hand, there might be one old VW Fastback which is not being towed because I am tying up the police.

If Pendergrass feels he's getting a minor case, he is polite. He listens to the recordings of the perv's calls, asks if I know anyone in the neighborhood in which the calls are originating, says the caller might be someone who knows me, even if I'm not aware of him -- someone who works at The News, maybe. He asks me what sort of guy I think the caller might be. It is an interesting variation on a Rorschach; a nice look at my own prejudices, for of course I've had a mental image of the guy since the calls began; I see him as dark, greasy, muscular; dressed in shiny pants or too-short jeans. I see him as the sort of man who leers after women and has never had a woman friend. "Young, mid-20s to early 30s; working-class," I say. Charlie has his own theory. "Sounds like a reporter," he says.

He confirms what I have heard about obscene callers -- that they are usually all talk -- and tells a few stories about other callers; the ones who threatened, the ones they'd been unable to trace and had collared in other ways. "We had this one guy, we had the girl get him so worked up, he had to come over, and when he walks in the door, he's ours," says Charlie. "I sat there with the girl, I told her what to say. She says, 'I can't say that, people will think I'm a pervert." I said, 'Tell them that I told you to say it, let them think I'm the pervert.' What do I care what they think."

Me says that voiceprints can be matched as accurately as fingerprints, but there is only one precinct in the area which has the technology and they'll probably rely on the phone company's computer readouts for this case. He is optimistic. In another week, he calls me up to tell me the suspect's name. I am pleased that it is no one I know. But I am wounded to learn that not only is my theory about the caller's ethnic background wrong but that he is even a member of my own tribe.

"Oh, no," I say, "not a Jewish guy."

"Remind me to tell you about the Cohen I locked up the other day," says Pendergrass.

He tells me more about the suspect: He is 30, unemployed and lives with his parents. He has no previous record and has been calling other women. Pendergrass plans to keep an eye on him for a few more days, then make the arrest and have me come to the stationhouse to see if I know him after all. That there had been some confusion, at first, about who in the perv's household had been making the calls, and that the perv has an unlisted phone. This information provides me with a whole new line of party talk; my number is in the book, but the pervert has an unlisted phone.

One week later, on a Sunday morning, Pendergrass calls again: He's contacted the perv, and the guy is bringing himself in; why don't I come over -- he'll set it up so I can see him through the one-way glass; he won't see me.

The idea of seeing the man who has left the most disturbing and repellent messages I've ever heard makes me uncomfortable, anxious, even though the more I learn about him, the more harmless he seems. At the stationhouse, however, the man seems even more pathetic. He confessed immediately, says Pendergrass. He was terrified of being confronted with the tapes. ("Ya want me to play them?" Pendergrass said. "Please don't," said the perv.) He said that this could kill his parents; that his father already had a heart condition and his mother was suicidal. He was frightened and, says Pendergrass, knows that he needs help, has been in therapy for two years.

I am unmoved. "Freudian therapy, probably," I say.

"Yeah," says Pendergrass. "Probably needs a little behavior mod."

Then I go into a little room to take a look. The man I see there is something like my image of a 30-year-old man who lives with his parents, but nothing like my idea of the man who made those calls. He is pale, he is blond, he is slight. His skin is the bad skin of an adolescent. He has close-cropped hair and wears a pastel crew-necked sweater. He fidgets and looks worriedly about. He is no one I can remember having ever met, but he is so bland, so innocuous, that I could have met him hundreds of times without remembering; so bland that when Pendergrass asks me to memorize his face, so that I can recognize him, if need be, in the future, I have to go back for a second look.

He is a pathetic man, pitiful. Still, I remember the messages he has left; the hate; the way he could ruin the mood in my home. I remember the feeling of psychic rape when I came home to hear that ugly voice talking about me and my body. I want him to answer for that; I want someone, with all the people in New York who get away with crimes, to finally have to take responsibility for his actions.

"I'll see you in court," I tell Pendergrass.

Righteous indignation is a feeling I have always savored, but it is diminished by time. Thus, when I meet up with Pendergrass and the caller, three weeks later, in Criminal Court, I am less angry; the calls, after all, stopped a month ago. Still, I am glad to hear that the caller will have more than one complaint against him. A woman who works for the Queens borough president and whose name he has also seen in the papers is also pressing charges. I sit beside Pendergrass and glare, across the courtroom, at the perv. Five minutes later he arrives. God, that man is forgettable; I have been staring angrily all this time at the wrong innocuous guy.

The case is called; the perv's Legal Aid attorney and the assistant DA go into a huddle with the judge; Pendergrass and the perv and I stand behind them, the perv with eyes downcast. There is no courtroom drama; no one is outraged, no one is interested in hearing the tapes. The defense attorney says his client has been in therapy, shows remorse; the judge seems open. As a second thought, the judge brings me into the discussion, asking what I'd like to see happen. I say that I'd like the caller to see another therapist, since this one hasn't seemed very effective. "He said his psychiatrist didn't know about the calls," says the judge, in the shrink's defense. "That's an effective shrink?" I say.

"Just out of curiousity," says the judge, "why do you have a listed phone number? Most professional women don't."

The old anger comes back.

"I don't see that it's up to me to explain why I have a listed phone number," I say. "I think it's up to the courts to protect me from the crazy people. I have a listed number because it's more convenient. Should I change my life because of guys like this?"

The judge backs off. He says he was merely curious; after all, the man is obviously troubled and seeing a therapist. He tells the perv he must not ever call me again and adjourns the case, pending the second suit. Afterwards, I talk with the Legal Aid lawyer, who says the same thing the judge has said -- his client is troubled.

"He's just, y'know, f'misht," says the lawyer, using the Yiddish word for crazy. "You really wouldn't want to see a guy like this in prison, would you?"

Death of a liberal -- I find I have to consider. "No," I say finally. "But I'd like you to have heard these tapes."

"So he's imaginative," says the lawyer.

"Then let him go into the arts!" I say.

A funny thing about anger -- it does not stay. I am enraged every time I hear the pervert's voice on my phone-answering machine (old messages on my machine can only be erased with new messages), but the anger, for the most part, is being replaced by curiousity. The curiosity is not new -- it was there from the moment the man called, strengthened when I saw him in court; but I wanted to wait until the case was closed. So I wait, two weeks, three weeks. Then one morning, on an impulse, I decided to call.

What a twist, me calling the pervert; like the hunted stalking the hunter, I think, though with a reporter that is not entirely so. A frightening feeling, too. Still, I want to confront the man. I want to find out. I call. I ask for the man, without identifying myself first. The voice that responds is wavering, fearful. "Who wants to know?" he asks. I tell him. There is a pause, confusion -- a decision is being made. I know this moment. I'm not going to let him get away. "You don't have to talk to me," I tell him, quickly. "I just wanted to know how you could do that to someone -- to another person. And also, I wanted to know, why did you pick me?"

"I didn't think of you as a person," he says in a rush. "That's the whole point -- it wasn't you as a person." He stops, his voice shaking. There's tremendous emotion in that voice: guilt, disbelief; a need to explain, a fear of what will happen if he does speak, of what will happen if he doesn't.

"I've been thinking about this every day," he says. "I've been feeling not just bad but remorseful. I stopped the week before I was arrested. I realized what I was doing. . . . There's no way I can apologize. . . . I don't even know if I should talk to you. . . . I don't have to talk to you, but I feel I should, that I owe it to you. . . . I'm afraid of you, y'know. . . . You're a writer, you could use my name and I could be ruined. . . ."

"I'm not going to use his name. I had made up my mind on that one when I learned he was in therapy; still I want to know -- why? And why me?

The man takes a deep breath -- I can hear the tension. He is still in conflict about talking to me. But the need to speak is powerful.

"I got this thing in my head to make some kind of call," he says. "I had this compusiion that came into my head. I don't know why, I don't know if anybody knows why. . . . I guess I couldn't have picked somebody I knew, I needed somebody remote. And then one Sunday, I was thumbing through the papers and thinking about it again, and I thought, 'I guess I'd just have to pick a face in the crowd'. . . and I glossed over a page and all of a sudden I saw this column, 'A Face in the Crowd,' and it seemed like the cosmic, and I jotted down the name. . . ."

"This is like black humor," I say.

"I didn't read the piece," the man says. "I just wrote down the name. It seemed remote, and also the machine seemed pretty remote. A few weeks later, all of a sudden it came to me, what the hell am I doing, this is wrong, and I stopped. Then I got busted. Then, a few weeks after that, I found the story by accident. I collect things, I find things and put them away -- and I was looking through them, for something specific, this story on money for education. I wanted to go back to school . . . and I found your piece and I read it. . . ."

The man's voice starts to tremble again. "It was the story you wrote on yourself, with the picture," he says. "And I read it and I started to really die. You seemed like a warm person and you had a good sense of humor . . . and now you weren't a stranger. I felt like I did it to someone I knew. It wasn't so remote anymore, I felt I knew you as person. . . ."

His voice breaks, he begins to cry. "I know I have problems, but I swear, I'm not a mean person. . . . From the time I read that article and I got to know you, from that point I think about this every day. . . . Not just once a day but a few times a day, and always when I get up in the morning and when I go to sleep. . . . I'm not a mean person, I'm really not. . . ."

He cries. He cries some more. We talk. He says yes, he was women friends; they condfide in him before they confide in other women; they wouldn't believe it if they knew; he says no, he's never been married; he lived with a woman once for a few weeks, not really enough to count. He's been in therapy and back in November he seemed to be getting himself together; changing his "destructive attitude towards my parents . . . taking responsibility for my life." Then he got depressed and began the calls.

He doesn't think he had a desire to get caught, though he has called women on and off through his adult life, but only occasionally. "I didn't make a career out of it," he says.

He talks about his attempts to straighten out, and the mess he's in now, and how it's no one's fault but his own. He talks about how he was going back to college and make something of himself. People have said he has above-average intelligence, but he guesses that with a criminal record, that will be all over.

Before I have time to think about it, I've made in offer. "I'll drop the charges," I say, and get off the phone.

Of course it does not end there. Exactly. The moment I offer to drop charges, I have second thoughts. Friends say I've been conned. I worry about that. I also worry about taking the time of the police to catch a creep and letting him go; about hurting the women's movement by allowing a man to get away with abusing women; about possibly interfering with the pervert's own psychological progress.

But finally, I feel good about the decision, and this is for two reasons: something I got from the Talmud and something I got from Pendergrass. The Talmud says this: that if you have made what you feel is the right decision at the time, then it is the right decision. As for Pendergrass, it was something he said when I told him I was going to drop the charges, because the man seemed sincerely to want to change, and I didn't want to be the one to stand in his way.

"He could be conning me, Charlie. He could go right out and do it again and I'll feel like a jerk, I don't know," I said.

"No one ever knows what a man will do," Pendergrass said.