Things couldn't get worse? Try using the phone

BRYSON'S AMERICA
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The Independent Culture
OF ALL the things that have been placed on earth to try my patience - and gosh aren't there a lot? - none has been more successful over the years than AT&T, the American telephone company.

Given a choice between, say, spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap and dealing with AT&T, I would always choose the hydrochloric acid as less painful. AT&T has the world's most indestructible payphones. I know this for a fact because I have never had an experience with AT&T from a payphone that did not result in my giving their equipment a thorough workout.

As you are probably gathering, I don't much like AT&T. But that's OK, because it doesn't like me. It doesn't like any of its customers, as far as I can tell. It dislikes them so much, in fact, that it won't even talk to them. It uses synthesised voices for everything now, which means that no matter how wrong things go - and you can be certain they will - you can never get through to a real person. All you get is a strange, metallic, curiously snotty robotic voice saying things like: "The number you have dialled is not within a recognised dialling parameter." It is immensely frustrating.

I was reminded of this the other day when I found myself stranded at Logan Airport in Boston because the mini-coach company that was supposed to pick me up and take me home, forgot to. I knew that it had forgotten me, and not broken down or had an accident, because as I stood at the designated pick-up point the familiar Dartmouth Mini-Coach van approached and, as I bent to pick up my bags, sailed past and continued on to the airport exit road and disappeared into the distance, on a general heading for New Hampshire.

So I went off to find a payphone to ring the mini-coach company - just to say hello, you know, and let them know that I was there and ready to go if they would only throw open a door and slow down enough to let me jump on - and this meant calling AT&T. I gave a ruptured sigh at the prospect. I had just had a long flight; I was tired and hungry and stranded at a charmless airport. I knew it would be at least three hours before the next mini-coach was due. And now I had to deal with AT&T. I approached a bank of payphones outside the airport terminal with deep foreboding.

I didn't have the number for the mini-coach company on me, so I read the instructions for directory inquiries and rang the number. After a minute a synthetic voice came on and brusquely instructed me to deposit $1.05 in change. I was taken aback by this. Directory inquiries always used to be free. I searched through my pockets, but I had only 67 cents. So I conducted a brief resiliency test with the receiver - yes, still indestructible - grabbed my bags and stalked off to the terminal to acquire change.

Of course, none of the businesses would give change without a purchase, so I had to buy a copy of The New York Times, Boston Globe and The Washington Post - each purchased separately, with a different note, as no other approach appeared to be allowable - until I had accumulated US1.05 in silver coins.

Then I returned to the phone and repeated the process, but it was one of those phones that are very choosy about what coins they take, and it seemed to have a particular dislike for Roosevelt dimes. It's not easy to feed coins into a slot when you have a receiver pressed to your ear with a shoulder, and three newspapers under your arm, and especially not when the phone is spitting back every third coin you feed it. After about 15 seconds a robotic voice came on and started scolding me - I swear it, scolding me, in an irksome synthetic quaver - and telling me in effect that if I didn't get myself organised pronto it would cut me off. And then it cut me off. A moment later it regurgitated the coins I had deposited. But here's the thing. It didn't return all of them. Between what it had given back and what it wouldn't take, I now had just 90 cents.

So I conducted another, slightly more protracted resiliency test and trudged back into the terminal. I bought a Providence Journal and a Philadelphia Inquirer and returned to the phone. This time I got through to directory inquiries, announced the number I wanted and hastily pulled out a pen and notepad. I knew from experience that directory inquiries gives a number just once and then hangs up, so you have to get it down carefully. I listened intently and started to write. The pen was dry. I immediately forgot the number.

I returned to the terminal, bought a Bangor Daily-News, a Poughkeepsie Journal and a plastic ballpoint, and returned. This time I got the number, carefully recorded it and dialled. Success at last. A moment later a voice on the other end said brightly, "Good morning! Dartmouth College!'

"Dartmouth College?" I stammered, aghast. "I wanted the Dartmouth Mini- Coach Company." I had used up all my remaining coins on this call and couldn't believe that I would have to go back into the terminal yet again to accumulate more. I suddenly wondered how many of those people in America who come up to you on corners and ask for spare change were once just people like me - respectable citizens who had led normal lives and ended up destitute, homeless and in need of constant small change for a payphone somewhere.

"I can give you the number if you'd like," the lady offered.

"Really? Oh, yes please."

She rattled off a number, clearly from memory. It was nothing like the number - not even remotely like the number - I had been given by AT&T. I thanked her profusely.

"No problem," she said. "It happens all the time.'

"What, they give your number when people ask for Dartmouth Mini-Coach?'

"All the time. Was it AT&T you used?"

"Yes."

"Thought so," she said simply. I thanked her again. "It's been my pleasure. And hey - don't forget to give that phone a really good pounding before you leave."

She didn't say that, of course. She didn't need to.

I had to wait four hours for the next mini-coach. But it could have been worse; I had plenty to read.

`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99

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