Information lacking in information age

This Just In ...

August 23, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

I needed the phone number for the hospital in Stroudsburg, Pa. It was 3:30 a.m. My 70-year-old father-in-law, who lives with his 72-year-old wife in a rural area about 10 miles from Stroudsburg, had just left an upsetting message on our answering machine. "I'm taking mommy to the hospital," was all he said, and his voice cracked.

Having slept through the rings, I hadn't reached the phone in time to speak with him. When I called back, there was no answer at his house.

I knew he'd be going to Stroudsburg. But I couldn't recall the name of the hospital there.

And when I called directory assistance for area code 570, the operators didn't know, either. And, bless their hearts, they didn't care.

"If I don't have the name of the hospital, I can't help you, sir," the operator said once, then twice, then three and four times. (I noted the repetition on a piece of paper.)

Come on, I said more than once, there must be some way to get it. There's only one hospital that I know of there.

"If I don't have the name, I can't help you," she said, impatiently, for the fifth time.

Then I did what I've rarely done -- I asked to speak to her supervisor.

The results were the same: Indifference, the tired recitation of a fact: "If you don't have the name of the hospital, I can't help you."

"I might as well be talking to a robot," I said.

The supervisor gave me the number for Stroudsburg police. That's how I got the name and number for Pocono Medical Center. (My mother-in-law is doing fine now, by the way.)

Now, I know: I should have asked the operator for the local police to begin with.

But I assumed that our heralded telecommunications industry had progressed to the point where an operator sitting at a computer with a huge data bank at 3:30 in the morning could, with a few taps on a keyboard and the clicks of a mouse, give me the phone number for a hospital in a small city in Pennsylvania. (It's not like I'd asked for the number of a nameless pizza joint in Philadelphia.)

I've done some homework and learned that operators can't easily find a number for a hospital without knowing its name. But some long-distance directory services apparently try harder than others.

In April, Bell Atlantic instituted a national directory service. Anyone in Maryland can dial 411 and, for 95 cents, ask an operator to look up a number anywhere in the country.

My 3:30 a.m. call, to 570-555-1212, was not to a Bell Atlantic service. According to my most recent phone bill, another company handles my long-distance directory inquiries (at $1.40 a pop). Most of the time, the system to which I subscribe works. The other morning, when I needed someone to make an extra effort, it didn't.

At the suggestion of a Bell Atlantic representative, I tested the new system. I dialed 411 and asked for the number of "the hospital in Stroudsburg, Pa." The operator stayed on the line for about 40 seconds -- twice the time they're allowed to spend with most customers -- and gave me the number for a medical center she said was in Stroudsburg. Turned out, she was wrong. Instead of the number for Pocono Medical Center, she gave me the number for Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown, about 20 miles away.

So, she missed. But at least she tried. Which is more than I can say for the operators of my former long distance directory service.

Suit-able

So what's up with L. Bell? He can't buy a nice suit in Baltimore? Gage doesn't have his size? Jos. A. Bank isn't good enough for him? He can't find something with four buttons at Firma? L. Bell spent $4,323 in other people's money -- campaign contributions -- on clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue, New York. (I wonder if he saw "Cats" while he was there.)

What's up with L. Bell?

I suspect hubris. Leading the pack in contributions, with $700,000, he must feel like the kid who just got access to a trust fund.

It's called flaunting it, baby.

With a windfall due mainly to his being City Council president and the leading contender (until recently, at least) for mayor, he's about $250,000 in contributions ahead of his nearest challenger, Martin O'Malley. So why not slip up to New York and spread some paper in the men's department at Saks? (Is that where Kweisi shops?) Never mind that a would-be mayor of Baltimore, or even a sitting City Council president, should patronize local businesses as much as he can -- for the sake of appearances, at the very least.

Ironically, L. Bell got so concerned about his appearance that he lost track of how he appears.

He appears, despite the nice suits, a little frazzled. When he called O'Malley a "chameleon" and a "hypocrite" at a Board of Estimates meeting a couple of weeks ago, he appeared desperate, a little surly.

The other day on the phone, Bell sounded whiny to me, and overly defensive.

I had contacted his office -- not Bell personally -- on a matter that, like the clothes-shopping trip to New York, was relatively minor but possibly revealing. I thought it was worth exploring.

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