Sometimes, dealing with the modern world baffles me. After all, I was a child of another era, before personal computers and laptops and high definition television. And, it goes without saying, before cell phones.
Actually, I’m from an era not only before cell phones, but before pushbutton phones. When I was a kid, we had an old black plastic rotary dial clunker on a shelf in the dining room. Picking up the receiver was a weightlifting exercise. Dialing it was an act of self expression. Some folks brandished a quick, snappy flair which made the return of the dial sound like the beat of a jazz band’s snare drum. Others, especially us kids, dialed with the deliberate slowness of concentrating newcomers to what was then high technology.
We didn’t have lists of contacts. We remembered most of the phone numbers we regularly dialed. It was a little easier because there was a built-in memory aid. A common word was used to signify the first two numbers of every town’s phone numbers. In Williamstown, the GL in "Glenview" represented the 45 exchange in front of all the phone numbers.
In North Adams, it was "Mohawk", where the MO meant 66, and it was "Hoosac" in Adams, the HO standing in for 74.
There were, of course, no answering machines. The answering machine was a pencil and a pad. If you didn’t reach the person with whom you wanted to speak and no-one answered, you called back later.
And with no caller ID, there was always the possibility you would get pranked. It was not uncommon to have a caller ask in an artificially low and adult sounding voice if you had Prince Albert in a can, or if your refrigerator was running. If you were slow-witted and answered, "What?" or "Excuse me?", you heard a kid’s laughter and the answer "Well, let him out!", or, "You better catch it! It’s running down the street!" before the caller slammed the phone in your ear.
One of the main uses of the phone, of course, has remained the same since probably not long after it was invented. Since the very first angry customer realized it was much easier to use the phone to complain than it was to travel to the cause of the complaint and do it in person, the phone has been the voice of the consumer.
But everything changes, and the complaint department is no different.
Back in the day, when you would call and complain, the person answering the phone would, to one degree or another, usually be willing to talk about your actual complaint. It was resolved or it wasn’t, and that was the beginning and end of it. It’s not so simple today. Which brings me back to my original statement: Dealing with the modern world sometimes baffles me.
Phone bills have evolved into a complex arrangement of mysterious references written in a code I never learned. It’s been years since I fully understood the services for which I was writing my monthly check. Recently, I somehow received a pair of phone bills on the same day, neither of which I could make heads or tails.
Enough was enough. I called my phone carrier, angrily seeking an explanation.
After being shuttled through a series of robot and human responders, I eventually found myself engaged in a heated conversation with a person who told me he was the supervisor to whom I had insisted I be allowed to talk.
Twenty-minutes later, I emerged from the den, a little dazed. Jean asked me how I made out with my complaint. Fine, I answered. I had just purchased two new phones and we could expect them within the week.
I showed him.
Bill Donovan writes regularly for The Advocate. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.