Stuck in phone hell

Years ago, back during the Vietnam War, I talked to a spokesman for the New Left who came to my campus.

"You are going to see the United States and the Soviet Union becoming more and more like each other," he said. "They are going to get color television. We are going to get secret police, bugging and slave labor camps. If you don't believe it, just wait. You'll see."

That was way before Watergate, and I thought he was a wild-eyed radical. Now it turns out that he was pretty much right on the money, except that the good old USSR went missing a few years back, only to be replaced by the largely Mafia-run Russia.

Naturally, I don't remember my informant's name, though I am almost sure it wasn't Dick Cheney. He left out something, however: For most Russians, the main characteristic of life in the late Soviet Union was not terror, but its bureaucratic incompetence and inefficiency. That, combined with a callous contempt for consumers.

Well, comrades, we are increasingly getting all of that now. That helped drive General Motors over a cliff, as we all know. But the worst example I have ever encountered is AT&T.

Normally, I wouldn't inflict my own mundane life experiences on my readers, but I have been persuaded I ought to warn you. So here's what you need to know: To put it as subtly as I can, Do not, do not, do not sign up for AT&T phone service, ever.

I know whereof I speak. I have been an AT&T customer since, oh, sometime in the far-off 1970s. For a long time, it worked pretty well. In fact, I have multiple AT&T lines. Then last year, I wanted to disconnect one line I had used for a computer, in the long-ago days of dialup. "No problem!" the operator said. The line stayed attached.

Next month, same thing happened. I called, they promised to disconnect it, and it stayed connected, and I kept getting billed. This happened again and again till my best friend devoted hours of her time and eventually got the line disconnected for me. It took her days.

But last month I really learned about AT&T hell.

Thirteen years ago I put in a line for my wife to use for personal calls. Every month I paid the bill, early and in full. Then one day it stopped working. You could call out, but not receive calls. I called AT&T repair.

They came out. "This isn't our line," they said. "Yes it is," I said. "You put it in. You bill me for it." Four calls later, they came back. "Somebody switched it to some other provider," they said. "They do that sometimes without your permission."

I told them nobody in this house authorized that. "Switch it back," I said. "We can't do that unless the company it was switched to allows us to." That's nuts, I said. Too bad, AT&T said. "If another company says it is their line, we can't switch it back."

"What is this other company and how do I contact it?" I asked. AT&T was unable to answer either question. (By the way, this wasn't one conversation. This emerged over the course of at least a dozen calls to AT&T, in which I was repeatedly transferred, once disconnected, and had to tell my story over and over again.)

Finally, they called me back while I was in a meeting in Lansing. "The best thing you can do is just give up and have us put in a new phone number," they told me. "Can you make it work through the jack for the old line?" I asked. Why of course; no problem.

After almost an hour on the phone, I was all set. They would come out a week ago. Nobody needed to be home. Someone planned to be anyway, but had to go to a funeral. They came. They installed the number.

I tried it. Didn't work. The technician left his cell phone number. I called. He had apparently just left. "Well, of course it doesn't work. There is no jack for it," the jerk said. You were supposed to put it in the one for the hacked line, I said. "Nobody told me," he said.

Please come back and do it, I begged. "Nope," he said.

For the next two hours, I was on the phone with various bureaucratic AT&T idiots. Eventually, I was transferred to a very nice and sympathetic young woman who promised me she would take care of it. She wouldn't give me her extension, but vowed she would call me at 9 the next morning with everything worked out and an appointment time to fix the line.

I never heard from her again.

Two days later, on July 5, I called Comcast, which supplies my high-speed Internet. "You are still with AT&T?" the guy said. He clearly thought I wiped my butt with leaves and twigs.

"Can you help me?" I asked, crying softly. Within half an hour he arranged for a Comcast line that had the same number as the phone AT&T said they could not restore. By bundling this with my other service, it would cost me less than a dollar more a month. The AT&T line cost, on average, $48.

When the nightmare was over, I once again called AT&T. "Please cancel the new phone number you just installed," I told the latest Soviet bureaucrat they had hired. "There is no such number," she said flatly.

"Yes there is," I purred. "You installed it three days ago."

"Oh. Well, that's too soon for us to have any information. Call back in a few weeks." I will, without much hope.

What I won't do is pay these bastards a dime. By the way, do you know who the architect of the modern AT&T is? One Edward Whitacre, who was head of Southwestern Bell and then took over AT&T.

And do you know what his new job is going to be?

He has been selected to be the new head of General Motors.

You just couldn't make this stuff up.

Women helping children: My spies tell me that one of the most effective and least well-known causes around is the Women's Caring Program (WCP). Since 1979, it has been helping women, the working poor and especially their children with financial support and quality childcare.

There are few causes more important. Tons of research shows that the years from birth to age 5 are the most crucial; kids who reach kindergarten hopelessly behind have virtually no chance to catch up. Carol Walters, WCP's founder, said their signature program, ChildCare Commitment, targets the working poor, who often fall between the cracks, especially in tough times. "We bring much-needed stability to the lives of working Michigan families for whom just a little help can make all the difference," Walters said. "This is certainly the case this year."

Unfortunately, this year there is also a whole lot more need. Which is where you come in. Once a year, the Women's Caring Program has a fundraiser called "Twilight Gathering," which is being held this Thursday night in Milford. Besides being for a darn good cause, it is an excellent opportunity to network with some powerful women. For more information, see:

Call 248-415-1442. And, yes, they will even let you in if you are a man. Provided your money is good, and you behave.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]

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