Trying to call someone is . . . hello? HELLO?

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 19, 1992|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- They call it "The Book of the Dead" because so many of its characters have died. It is the Mexico City telephone directory.

"You might say the directory is symbolic of a telephone system designed by Franz Kafka," says Hector Borbolla, an executive with IBCON, a company that has made a fortune publishing specialized phone books with real listings and living people.

Indeed, Miguel Kafka, a Mexico City accountant who is a distant relative of the surrealist Czech author, says: "Not only are so many people in the phone book dead but the phone numbers are dead, too."

A phone call to another Kafka in the directory reveals that he died years ago.

As is the Mexican custom, the phone was sold to successive owners, but the original owner's name -- Kafka -- was left in the book.

"My mother died 25 years ago," says Arturo Lomeli, head of a consumers organization. "We've done the paperwork five times to have the phone listed under my name. But she lives on in the directory."

For many people the telephone book is just one more wrong number by Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex), Mexico's spectacularly incompetent phone company.

Telmex has enraged millions of its patrons who have waited months sometimes for the return of a dial tone, or were billed for phone calls to distant places they never made.

The lousy service is the nation's No.1 source of complaints -- four of every 10 -- to the government agency that acts as a consumer ombudsman.

Some newspaper letter writers say they have waited more than two years to get their phones repaired. The wait for a new phone may take as long as three years.

Besides "The Book of the Dead," Telmex publishes two other works of dubious value: a yellow pages directory and a criss-cross "blue" book of street addresses with corresponding phone numbers.

As many as 30 percent of the listings in the yellow pages belong to firms that have long gone out of business or whose numbers are wrong, says Mr. Borbolla.

The criss-cross directory misses many streets altogether and lists only portions of others, he says: "The system is totally crazy."

But true craziness does not occur until Telmex pulls the plug and the shrieking dial tone of a Mexican phone falls silent.

When this happened to a small downtown office building not too long ago, the reaction was like a roach colony getting a whiff of insecticide.

Panicked businessmen, trailed by their secretaries, poured from the building to form a line in front of a public phone on the corner.

"I can't tell you how much business I'm losing," said Fernando Garcia, an exporter angrily awaiting his turn. "I'm in the last stages of a multimillion-dollar deal, and nobody can call my office."

Mr. Kafka understood the problem all too well. "You might say the very fact that I am able to talk to you over the telephone is Kafkaesque.

"One of my phones was dead for 2 1/2 months and wasn't restored until we had a meeting with one of the directors of Telmex," he said.

Many major companies do not have such problems. They have their own phone systems.

The best bet for ordinary people is to ambush a passing Telmex truck in hopes a generous bribe can convince the repairman to take pity on their dead phone.

But Telmex repairmen can be a hard-bitten lot and are stern judges of the truly needy.

A dying mother waiting for the last phone call from her grandchildren is a line that has swayed some repairmen.

When all else fails, the cursed phone owner can join the queue at a public telephone in the street. Those calls are free because Telmex says it's too costly to restore the collection part of vandalized pay phones.

To be sure, Telmex has made vast improvements since 1990, when a Mexican magnate joined with French and American partners to buy the government monopoly.

The more efficient managers piled up a $2.3 billion profit last year, further enraging the victims of Telmex's service.

But Mr. Borbolla remains disdainful. "Franz Kafka," he says, "is alive and well in the white pages of Telmex. Just ask any information operator."

But Mr. Borbolla's company doesn't exist. When asked for the company's number recently, the surrealist operator replied: "I'm sorry, sir, it doesn't exist."

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