A Message for the Editor
By Stannie Anderson
April 4, 1991
“I have a message to give you from a dead lady.” The man’s voice was a flat monotone on the telephone.
“From a DEAD LADY?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Inwardly, I sighed. Please, not today. I was too busy on the city desk.
Newspapers usually are a mental patient’s third choice for a telephone call in a psychiatric center like Topeka, Kan.
First they call the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Then the Topeka Police Department. But inevitably they’ll get around to calling their local newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal.
As a long-time assistant city editor of the newspaper, I’ve listened to hundreds of calls from patients about such things as a death ray surrounding the city or poison dust that someone is maliciously blowing up through the floorboards of a home.
We’ve learned to be gentle with patients in Topeka. Most of them are troubled people, filled with pain. Few are violent. I’ve found through the years the best way to handle such calls is to listen courteously, agree with them, and get them off the line as quickly as possible.
So I said, courteously, “Yes, what’s the message?”
“She wants you to print an essay she has written about the new city anti-smoking ordinance,” he said in the same monotone.
“She’s interested in that, is she?” I commented, humoring him.
“Yes, she is,” he said.
I’m sorry, but we don’t print essays,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he said. TYPE-TYPE-TYPE-TYPE.
In silent amazement I wondered, “He communicates with the dead lady by TYPEWRITER?”
“Sir--,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he interrupted. “She hasn’t finished typing.”
“Oh,” I said and subsided.
The dead lady types, too?
Then he began speaking again.
“She wants to know why,” he said.
“Because we have professional reporters to write for us, and we don’t publish essays from other people,” I said, not wanting to go into the Letters to the Editor that are available to our readers. The important thing was to get the man off the phone.
I might have added, “We don’t publish essays, particularly from dead people,” but I restrained myself.
“Oh,” he said. “Just a minute.” TYPE-TYPE-TYPE-TYPE.
“Sir--,” I said.
“Just a minute, she hasn’t finished typing,” he said.
I could not help but be fascinated by this unusual conversation. This certainly was different from any other call I had ever had from a mental patient.
Then he came back on the line.
“She wants to know how she can let people know how she feels about the ordinance,” he said.
Cornered at last, I said, “We don’t use things from dead people.”
There was an obvious surprise in his voice. “You don’t? Just a minute.” TYPE-TYPE-TYPE-TYPE.
Then he said, “She wants to know why.”
Incredulously I asked, “SHE WANTS TO KNOW WHY?”
“Yes,” he said. “She wants to know why you don’t use things from deaf people.”
Suddenly I sat up straight in my chair.
“Did you say DEAF people?” I asked softly.
He was puzzled. “Yes, of course, deaf people.”
Now came panic. This was not a mental patient. It obviously was a call from a deaf woman using a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) with a hearing volunteer relaying information to her.
I apologized and explained the unexplainable. I had misunderstood when he said “deaf lady,” and he had misunderstood my response, “A DEAD LADY.” So the strange conversation got underway.
The caller laughed. “Just a minute,” he said. TYPE-TYPE-TYPE-TYPE.
Then he came back on the line, the laughter still in his voice. “She says she thinks that’s very funny.” In the background I could hear the laughter of his co-workers also enjoying the situation.
I did tell the deaf lady how to let people know how she felt about the new anti-smoking ordinance. But there was no way I could convey to her the joys of being a journalist!