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The calls started coming last week. They started at 7:30 in the morning.
“I just wanted you to know I prayed for you the whole time you were in jail,” said the caller.
Now, my grandmother hasn’t committed a crime since Prohibition was repealed, and has never, to my knowledge, done time. But she does have good phone manners. Before she hung up, she said the only thing that her upbringing allowed. She said, “Thank you, dear.”
Grandma is 99 and third-generation Irish. She recently moved here from Philadelphia and listed herself in the phone book as “M. Barry.” She had no intention of getting involved in municipal politics. “Barry is a respected name in Philadelphia,” she muses after a week of fielding calls for the mayor. The calls are well-meaning, for the most part, but she has had about enough. “Here I am, a poor innocent old lady, not doing harm to anybody,” she says. It takes her a long time to get to the phone, she tells me plaintively. “Write that I have a walker.”
Local attorney William J. Clinton, who hears from a lot of angry veterans, can sympathize. So can Robert Dole, Al Gore, and the District’s eight James Carters. Alan Keyes of Silver Spring has been so inundated with calls for Alan Keyes of Darnestown that his answering machine now states, “I am not the one running for the presidency.” And Jesus Christ, a native of Florida, says he is hounded by solicitations for money and “college students that just want to be real cynical.”
But so far, the phone company hasn’t been much help. To citizens who carry the same name as a political figure, the message is clear: Give up your privacy or give up your name.
“You can get a caption listing [in the phone book] that says, ‘I am not the mayor,’ ” recommends Michel Daley, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, although his bosses later squelch that idea. The best recourse, Daley says, is to re-list your name using a middle name or a salutation such as “Ms.” or “Mrs.” Beyond that, there’s not much you can do. “The caller really should be a little bit more careful,” he adds lamely.
Meanwhile, Grandma is taking a lot of messages. She is learning something about city government: namely, that Barry’s constituents are very concerned about his health. “They must love him. They really must, to pray for him like that. I never prayed for a political figure, although I considered praying for Kennedy,” she says. Nevertheless, “I don’t know why I should be in the middle of it. It’s just lucky I’m not named Gramm,” she adds with a little shudder. “God forbid.”
So if you want to pass along your good wishes, call Marion Barry at his office: The number is 727-2980. Just leave my grandmother out of it. Grandma plays a searing game of bridge and has been voting for Democrats since the passage of the 19th Amendment, but she is, as Bell Atlantic nicely put it, not the mayor. Ellen Barry