There’s a gravel undertone to his voice on the answering machine. He called me twice, before 6 a.m., messages blinking red on the phone when I came in to work that morning.
“I think you’ll understand why I’m anonymous when you hear what I’m going to tell you,” is his preface, and I know to be ready for a long message.
It goes on for five minutes, between the two messages. He loses me somewhere in the middle, about the point where he takes a time-out in his story to tell me that he’s seen a psychiatrist, who confirmed he’s not paranoid.
The police really are out to get him, kicking him from one temporary housing location to another, them part of a dark underworld of heroin that he stumbled across.
He doesn’t leave a name, or a number. The incident that started it all was five years ago, in a town well outside our coverage area.
There is nothing I could do, even if his story made more sense.
It’s never a good sign when the call comes before sunrise, or the caller preemptively says he isn’t paranoid / crazy / sick/ a criminal, or refuses to give his name.
All three together leave very little room for credence.
But it’s a quiet Friday afternoon and the story I’ve been working on for the past several days is mostly done and today I do wonder: what if it were true?
What could he possibly say to convince me that he’d been persecuted across three counties because of police involved in a drug deal? That the payphone was tapped, and under surveillance, and strangers knew his name and story, and how he had to be careful?
Anyone telling a story like that, no matter how sane, will sound a bit paranoid. And to never be believed – couldn’t that make a sane man mad?
I scroll again through the notes I took listening to his early-morning voice. “The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation,” he rasps. “Jesus told me to be the salt and the light and journalists much press the truth. Our tax dollars are supporting this, making a man homeless.”
He’s appealed to religion, to politics, to the heart of journalism, and he rests his case.
Then calls right back to tell another paragraph of the story, one he forgot the first time.
I wish he left his phone number. Because no matter how crazy, his is a story that could become something.
It reads like a crime novel to me.