I’ve called 911 exactly five times in my life. It seems like a lot, I suppose, on first glance. I’m not part of a motorcycle gang, my grasp of science was never good enough to build a meth lab in my sock drawer, I don’t sit on my back porch with binoculars looking for crimes to happen. But I have, in my life, called 911 five times.

I should qualify.

I accidentally called 911 once. When I was in middle school, before my state had instituted area code dialing, my mom’s cell phone number started with 9121. A sticky 2 on the communal call-your-parents-for-more-money at my huffy private school quickly connected me with the local police office.

“911 what is your emergency?”

I couldn’t think of anything other than, “Mom?”

“Are you calling from 4000 Quail Street?”


“Your mother is not at the police station.”

“Er, no. I, uh, misdialed.”

“It is a crime to falsely use police time, son.”

Over time, I’d come to hear this again.

I called 911 in England looking for a Harry Potter book. The Brit equivalent of 911 is, for the most part, 999. Working in an office in London, I needed to dial a 9 to get out of our internal system and reach the outside. Very secretly at the end of one workday, I was trying to locate a nearby bookstore for the midnight release of the last Harry Potter.

In my eagerness to get all Hogwarty and unaware of the emergency equivalent on the Isles, I tapped 9 repeatedly to get an outside line and lifted the receiver to my ear. The accent was heavier than anything I’d ever heard.

“Mumble mumble toaster strudel ham bone Emergency?”

“You’re open at midnight tonight?”

“Aye burble ramble Always.”

“Always? Great. Can I reserve one copy of the book?”

“Snissh … Nay.”

“No? What kind of a bookstore is this?”

“Apple core Police dart hat!”

“This is the police? Oh. Um. Terribly sorry. I’m … uh … American … and stupid … no emergency here. Thanks. Bye.”

The entire office was staring at me.

I called 911 once in Los Angeles to save someone’s life. I was driving south on Vermont as it passes over the 101 Freeway and saw a shiny black Lexus blaze through its stoplight and smash into the guardrails on the overpass.

Concrete buckled and small pieces tumbled onto the roadway below from the force of the impact. I immediately got my phone out and dialed 911.

“This may be an emergency,” I said. “I can see the driver, and I hope he’s OK.”

The dispatcher was pleasant and promised to send help immediately. Then she asked if I’d like to have my name on the record.

I thought for a moment. I was trying to figure out two things: one, is this car fleeing a drug deal gone bad or some kind of police cover-up operation, and if so, how safe was my name in this nameless database?

I’ve seen L.A. Confidential, and in the 1950s, this department was rife with corruption. A patsy I am not.

I gave her my name.

The one time I actually needed 911, I was again sitting in my car: downtown L.A., 2 a.m, desperately searching for an emergency room. That’s the exciting description.

The details are far more bizarre: I was on a flight on an older plane earlier that day with a head cold, and air, supposedly, had been forced down from my nasal cavity and had begun to expand in the sockets of my molars, causing me extreme pain. Now, desperate for a doctor, I was on my phone with 911, had been placed on hold and just happened to pull up to a stoplight, on an abandoned street in an otherwise abandoned city, next to two LAPD officers in their black-and-white. Perfect.

“Officers, which way to the nearest hospital?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the first officer said.

“Can’t help you,” the second said.

They stomped on the gas and slunk away into the blackness.

Go. To. Hell.

I suppose I’m prickly about all this because it happened again this week. I was at home, trying to use a calling card, misdialed, and a cruiser pulls up in front of the house.

I’d been on the phone, so the checkup callback from the dispatcher had been missed. The officer shines a bright blue light into my room and calls me to the front door.

By now I’m a pro at explaining how stupid I am and deflecting his veiled threats of wasting police time. I know this. I say I am very sorry. He leaves.

He sits in his police car at the edge of my street for an hour. I suppose this is policy, making sure that there isn’t going to be a murder-suicide this evening at this address. I sit with my back to the window, wondering why three helpful digits have done me such wrong, and look at his taillights in the reflective surface of my bastard cell phone until he leaves.