Victims of telephone

January 21, 1994|By Russell Baker

GREAT news from my telephone company! It came in the last phone bill.

"Important Notice," it said.

"Thank God!" I cried. "At last!"

My wife's face, careworn and exhausted from endless days and nights of trying to persuade various telephone-company salesmen that we did not want to abandon our present telephone company and hire theirs -- yes, that dear but careworn wifely face looked for all too brief a moment young and vibrant once again as it had looked in days of yore before the telephone wars began.

She spoke: "By my troth, good husband, say quickly if they promise to end their telephonic importunings, thus granting us surcease of salesmen offering suspiciously low rates on long-distance calls to places we never call forsooth."

She started talking this way a year ago and now can't stop. Originally, she hoped it would throw telephone-company salesmen off their spiel if they thought they had crashed through a time warp and reached a woman in the Elizabethan age.

Realizing that the telephone still hadn't been invented in those days (she reasoned), they would then hang up without the usual attempt to make her change companies.

Alas, I said. This was merely good news, not a miracle.

"Giveth it to me, straight from the shoulder," she said.

"Our decision not to buy the telephone company's Caller ID service is now completely vindicated!" I cried.

"Surely thou kiddeth."

"Listen and learn," said I. "If this Important Notice is to be believed . . ."

"And sure it must be, else why calleth it 'Important Notice'?"

". . . Then our telephone company is now helping callers to prevent their own numbers from being displayed on the Caller ID boxes people bought for the purpose of finding out what number was ringing them up."

"Zounds!" she cried. "'Tis a miracle of telephonic cancellation. First the phone company provideth people the means to learn the caller's number, then it provideth the caller with the means to prevent people from learning his number."

"And it's so simple," I said. "If I don't want some nosy Caller ID box tipping off its owner to my phone number, I simply punch 67, or 1167 if I'm using a rotary-dial phone.

"My call then rings into Mr., or Mrs., or Miss, or Ms. Nosy who thinks he or she's got the old Caller ID all ready to record my number. But the laugh's on them, Wife, because if I've punched 67, the only thing that appears on Caller ID is the word 'Private' or the letter 'P.'"

"O brave new world, that has such genius in 't," she said. "But hath the wretched sap, she who hath paid the telephone company for its Caller ID service, no recourse against that dear company for making a useless mockery of her purchase?"

Sometimes I suspect my wife of playing the innocent just to keep me amused. Surely, as I pointed out to her, she knew our telephone company better than that.

It was not the kind of telephone company that, having sold Caller ID service to help its customers scare off heavy breathers and other such sexual harassers, would sell another device to neutralize this protection without providing yet another way for Caller ID customers to compete against the company's new Caller ID neutralizer.

I read as follows from the Important Notice: "Caller ID subscribers can choose not to receive calls from people who block the display of their number.

"By dialing 77, (or 1177 on a rotary phone), Caller ID subscribers can activate Anonymous Call Rejection."

And at no extra charge!

"After activating the service, you will hear an announcement telling you that callers who wish to speak with you must unblock their numbers in order for your telephone to ring." Doesn't make any sense to me either, folks, but that's what it says. "If you do not activate the service, all calls will ring your telephone. To de-activate Anonymous Call Rejection, simply dial 87 (or 1187 on a rotary phone)."

"Doth this make sense," asked my wife, "or doth our telephone company do such things in obedience to some vice president for ridiculous ideas, whomof we know not?"

What do I care? I'm too happy about not having bought Caller ID in the first place, thus saving us both from the toil of mastering yet another batch of numbers.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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