Apr 1, 2008

When April Fool Jokes Go Bad

Working with large telecom systems has its advantages on April Fool's day. Many years ago, while working in OHSU's telecom department, my co-workers and I pulled off a masterpiece of a joke that grew into a life of its own.

If you're not familiar with the employee parking situation up at OHSU, let's just disclose up front that it doesn't exist. Unless you waited three or four years on a waiting list and and were finally awarded a monthly $70+/mo parking pass. Or unless you got to a parking booth early enough in the morning to buy a $7+ day pass. Our practical joke focused on this lack of parking.

One of our fellow OHSU co-workers, I'll call her "Jane"(not her real name), made a habit of parking without buying a day pass. It seemed she was constantly complaining about those pesky tow notices she received from OHSU's parking department due to her vast quantities of unpaid parking tickets. Once, while going to lunch, we witnessed her begging a tow truck driver to unhook her car from his tow vehicle right in front of our office. After much cajoling, she persuaded one of our co-workers to loan her $200 so she could pay her current stack of unpaid parking tickets, and the tow truck driver unhooked her car.

Then came April Fool's day. Just for fun, I thought I'd see what a MS Word-based invoice would look like if I replaced the word "Invoice" with "Tow Notification". It looked pretty good, especially after we walked out to her car, got her license plate number and VIN, and included this data in the fake tow notice.

I added some fake penalty and late fee dollar amounts, about $400 dollars worth, put in an official "tow" date and time (April 1, 3pm), and printed it out to show some co-workers. Being in the telecom department, another co-worker suggested the fake tow notice would look more official if it had a phone number to call for information. Done! We added a new phone number in the phone system, created a voice mail message that said
" To prevent towing, only cash payments were permitted", and to please leave a message if the caller wanted to pay in cash that day.

Then our Department Director stopped by to see what all the laughing was all about. He offered to hand-deliver the fake tow notice to "Jane" . What a great April fools joke this was going to be! After our Department Director hand-delivered the fake tow notice with great solemnity, "Jane" went to another co-worker in a panic, saying she didn't have the money to pay the fines and fees, and asked what should she do? Our co-worker told her to call the number on the tow notice and beg for mercy.

"Jane" called the number and left a sob story on its voicemail. This was working out great! But what should we April Foolers do next? Then I got an idea. I called a buddy of mine, someone whose voice "Jane" wouldn't recognize. I filled my buddy in on the joke. He agreed to call "Jane" and tell her no deals could be made, cash or tow, her choice. I three-wayed my buddy onto the fake tow phone number so "Jane"'s caller ID would show she was receiving the call from "OHSU "Parking", and then called "Jane".

My buddy, pretending to be OHSU's "Director of Parking" proceeded to tell "Jane" in no uncertain terms that they were sick and tired of writing parking tickets on Jane's car, and no deals would be made. It would be cash today, or tow today, "Jane"'s choice.

But then our joke turned a little sad. "Jane" went to a co-worker in tears, saying she needed her car, and she didn't have the money to prevent towing. She also complained about the hardball attitude of the "Parking Director". Uh oh. . .Did we go too far? We did. We actually felt pretty bad about our joke at this point.

So we decided to tell her and apologize. We took her out of the office, showed her a copy of the fake tow notice, and said "April Fool". "Jane", however, didn't get it. She said, "How dare you give me a fake tow notice when they're about to tow my car! I got a REAL tow notice!". She showed us her "Real" fake tow notice. Boy, was "Jane" ticked off! She thought we were making fun of her desperate situation with OHSU's parking department!

So I said, "Jane", how could I have a copy of your "real" tow notice"? Unless I made it myself. . .it was a joke!"
The hot, searing light of understanding came alive in her eyes. She was even more upset! We had indeed gone too far, and apologized profusely.

We treated "Jane" to a nice lunch that day, and she eventually laughed about it after we told her how the joke escalated in to a life of its own. Lesson learned that day? Be prepared to spend a lot of money for lunch on April Fool's day.

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