The Man Who Cried “Wolf!”

I’ve had enough emergency calls for one week. Thursday morning, I walked out of the house with the kids, and, as I got them in the car, I smelled natural gas. It was faint, but I smelled it. The whole neighborhood has gas heat, so it could have been coming from anywhere. Just to be safe, I called 911 from the car. “Stay there,” they said. “We’ll meet you there.” Really? I thought. I’ve got to get these kids to school. Crap.

A few minutes later, a fire truck pulled up, sirens blaring, my daughter asking, “Is that them?” Not thinking it was a siren kind of emergency, I said no, but I was wrong. Clad in full gear, the firemen came walking up, “Did you call?”

“Yes, I did.”

They walked around my house, holding their gas meters, telling me the meters didn’t register anything. Fortunately, they did smell what I smelled, so I didn’t feel like a complete idiot. They said it was probably just my heater’s exhaust, but I should call the gas company to come out and check anyway, especially since I had kids. “Okay,” I said, thanking them and sending them on their way.

I got into the car, and, late, started toward school. Two minutes into the drive, my cell phone rang. I don’t usually pick up the phone in the car but I thought it might be the babysitter wondering where we were. I grabbed it. Crap. It was a number I’d come to know. The sheriff’s department in my dad’s town. They call my dad every day just to check on him, and when they don’t get in touch, first they call two neighbors with keys to his house, who, incidentally, work in the city, two hours away and are never around, then they call me, usually to ask me if I want them to break a window to get inside. I picked up. It was the usual call. This was probably the fourth time I’d fielded one of these.

I told the sheriff that my dad had mentioned going into Manhattan to see a lawyer. I didn’t know what day but I told him to give it some time and call later. I was quite sure it wasn’t an emergency. This game is getting like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” I thought. Someday he’s going to be lying on the floor and I’m going to tell the sheriff not to bother and it’s going to be because there were so many false alarms.

I dropped the kids off at school, annoyed that my dad never told the sheriffs he would be out of the house for their call. I was annoyed at this whole trip he was making into Manhattan in the first place. As was his modus operandi, he had planned to get there in the most ass-backwards way possible. Park (for free, of course) on the street in the Bronx, take the bus to the subway, take the subway downtown. My father is 83 years old, painfully thin, with the posture of an upside-down “L.” God help him if he went through any unsavory neighborhoods on the train. I knew he would, too. But he had made up his mind.

I didn’t know if this was the day but I figured if it was, he’d be back by five his time, so I waited, and called him. Turns out he did call the sheriff’s department but their machine was broken and he did not go to the lawyer in Manhattan, nor would he, because his current lawyer did not fire him as he’d thought (that’s a whole different story). He told me that he should cancel the “Are you ok?” program with the sheriff’s department and I did manage to talk him out of that. Without it, I would have no way of knowing he was in trouble until it was too late. Way too late. He lives on half an acre. It’s not like neighbors would hear him yelling or notice a smell if he died. (I know, morbid, but realistic.) And we talked again about giving a key to a retired neighbor who spends his time in town. So I guess some good came of our talk.

I am getting a little sick of his ass-backwards arrangements, though. He and my mother had always defied logic, no matter what they did, so it’s no surprise he gave his keys to neighbors who are never around. And when that’s his problem I don’t care, but when it becomes my problem, I do. But what do I do? I should tell the cops to break a window next time. That would be hilarious on my end, not so funny to my dad. He just had new windows installed.

The key to persuading my dad these days is to exploit his vulnerability. Although he thought he could take the bus and train to Manhattan by himself, I guarantee he was not thinking about getting mugged, just about getting there as cheaply as possible. Had I reminded him that he would pass through one of the worst drug depots in the city, maybe he would have changed his plans. Likewise, if I argue that he needs the police to be able to come in if he falls or something, I bet I can get him to give the retired neighbor his key sooner rather than later.

Even so, I know it’s going to take a while. I’m going to field a lot more morning calls from the sheriff’s department as I’m getting the kids off to school. Every time I get a call, I get a little twinge – could this be it? Will they find him dead in his house? And every time, when they call back, I’m relieved. I guess I’d much rather have him crying “Wolf” than not crying at all.