The first phone call of the week to Bob Levey, Boy Complaint-Fielder, is often laced with passion and purpose. In the case of Al Kerr's call on Monday morning of last week, at a few minutes past 9, another P-word came into play: puzzlement.
Al had just gotten that day's mail at his home in Vienna. In the stack was a computerized notice from the Atlantic magazine. It said, in flowery threatenese, that Al had better pay up for the subscription he ordered or all manner of hell would descend on him.
Al had no idea what to make of the letter, for a very good reason. He had not subscribed to the Atlantic. So what did Levey think he should he do?
I advised Al to find the nearest trash can and give the Atlantic's notice the old dunkeroo. If the magazine wants to pursue this, I said, it will founder sooner or later on a big rock: The signature on the subscription card is not Al's. Al thanked me, and on I went to the rest of the Monday morning crop of calls.
But the incident nagged at me, as well it might have. In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby admit that I am a former magazine subscription zinger.
Nearly 30 years ago, on cold winter nights in the college dorm, when the proceedings were dragging, I would suggest to the gang that Old Nerdface down the hall deserved a little shaking up. So several of us would steal across the street to a drugstore.
While my confreres distracted the cashier, I would march up and down the magazine rack, ripping subscription cards out of Sports Illustrated and Popular Mechanics and Fortune and every publication in the place. Then the guys and I would repair to my room, where we'd spend about half an hour filling in the blanks, in Nerdface's name.
Our payoff usually came within a couple of weeks. Nerdface's mailbox was choked with publications he had never ordered. As he ranted and cursed and became a very red-faced Nerdface, we would again repair to my room, where we would giggle and toast each other with root beers. Pretty sophisticated, weren't we?
Anyway, it won't surprise you to learn that such subscription zinging still goes on "regularly," according to Dee Dee Cashman, who works in the telephone orders department at Neodata Services, a magazine subscription clearinghouse in Boulder, Colo.
Dee Dee said that her company assumes that tear-out subscription cards are legitimate. However, if a zing is reported, "we are happy to cancel the order" and "we tell the person to ignore the bill."
Yes, we are talking about fraud here, and yes, the legal system can prosecute such pranksters. However, Sheila Carter, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Office, said her organization rarely takes such cases to court, especially if it's a first offense and especially if the offender admits guilt.
In any case, if you're a zing victim, for most magazines you should call Neodata Services at 303-666-7000. Tell them Levey sent you. But please don't tell them about Nerdface. He might retaliate in a way I deserve -- and I really don't want Bride's or Redbook.
Great Moments in Parking Tickets:
Joseph A. Pappano, of Northwest Washington, was out for a stroll in downtown D.C. when his eye caught a defiant bumper sticker aboard a sassy sports car parked near 15th and L streets NW.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, the sticker said.
Then Joe's eye caught something else: a boot, "firmly attached to the car's right rear wheel."
Great Moments in Education:
Carole Hosey, of Silver Spring, was waiting for her daughter in the lobby of a local movie theater. She hadn't been to see a film "in a number of years," she says, so she was shocked to see the price of a bucket of popcorn: three bucks!
Her daughter's show wasn't finished, so "out of boredom, I started a conversation with the young woman behind the counter," Carole writes.
"I am really amazed by the price of popcorn today," Carole told the woman. "Years ago, I lived in Wisconsin, and we knew a farm family who gave a portion of their acreage to their oldest son. He was to grow and harvest any crop he wished, and that money was saved for his college expenses. Those acres, in turn, were used for that purpose for each of the children in the family. They grew popcorn, and sold it either shelled or on the cob."
The counter woman's eyes widened. "You can grow popcorn?" she asked.
As Carole observes, the woman probably wondered how it came up so white.
Jim McDaniel, of Bowie, says middle age is that period of life when everything is half paid for.