Al Reinach of Silver Spring and his wife wanted to renew their passports. His wife had a question that she felt only a human could answer. She soon discovered the awful truth:

To speak to a human being at the National Passport Information Center costs money.

You can either pay a flat rate of $5.50 to dial 1-900-225-5674 or 1-888-362-8668. Or you can opt to spend $1.50 a minute and hope you get an answer quickly. But either way, you are paying for a basic government service. As Al said, he thought his federal taxes did that already.

Al complained to the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). A caseworker told him it was a matter of money. Well, Al said, what isn't?

At the end of his rope, he called the fount of all wisdom -- the guy who's typing this.

Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the Consular Affairs Bureau of the State Department, said pay-to-reach-a-human has been in effect at the passport center since 1996. He said it was adopted because the workload had become overwhelming.

Staff members had to answer phones and also issue passports. They couldn't do both efficiently, Stuart said. According to the National Passport Information Center's Web site, the workload of the passport office had gotten so enormous that "customers who called were treated poorly," and delays were constant.

The user-pay system has proved to be "very efficient," Stuart said. The NPIC's Web site emphasizes that fees you pay to speak to a human don't go to the government. "NPIC is a contractual operation funded by user fees," the site says. There "are not a noticeable number of complaints" about user-pay, Stuart said.

Well, Stuart, here comes a big one.

I dislike busy signals and camping on hold as much as the next guy. But if the passport office needed more staff, why didn't it seek more? And why didn't Congress -- always tuned like a fork to voter complaints -- provide more?

This is not some fringe government agency or some obscure government program. A passport is basic for any American who travels overseas. Any fifth-grader could have told you that as the population increased and the economy boomed, there'd be a surge in foreign travel.

Amy Hagovsky, press secretary for Sen. Mikulski, said the office receives about two complaints a year about the speak-to-a-human fee. The office would be happy to pursue the matter on behalf of Al or any constituent, Amy said. Just write a letter and ask to open a case.

And it won't cost you $5, Al.

Yet.

Calls from telemarketers are bad enough. But their "bedside manner" is getting positively slimy.

Instead of simply stating their business, some of them are trying to sidle up to whoever answers the phone. Tele-pests would never try this if it didn't work on at least some people. But it sure didn't work on a Levey reader in Potomac, who knew just how to handle herself -- and the latest trend in pitches.

She works at home, so she needs to keep her phone clear for business calls. Here's an approximate transcript of a conversation in which she co-starred on Jan. 27:

She: "[Name of business]."

Male voice: "How are you doing?"

She: "You've reached a business. May I help you?"

Voice: "I just wanted to know how you're doing."

She: "I'm too busy to talk with anyone who won't identify himself. Goodbye."

[Phone rings again immediately].

She: "[Name of business]."

Same male voice, obviously agitated: "You've just made your boss lose a chance for a really good deal by hanging up on me! So now I'm going to hang up on you!"

She: "Nope. Me first. Bye."

The woman immediately did a star-69 (a button-punch that will tell you the source of the previous call). The call had come from an 800 number belonging to the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association.

Like so many public safety outfits, the union has farmed out its tele-fundraising to a private company. I couldn't chase down an official for comment. But here's mine:

The association needs to find a drawing board and go back to it.

Not only are such tactics rude and dishonest. They're borderline illegal.

Any time a woman fields a call from a man who won't identify himself, she will feel very vulnerable, especially if she's in her own home. Can you spell s-t-a-l-k-e-r?

To my reader in Potomac: Congratulations for having quick wits and a stout backbone. And count yourself lucky. At least the spurned caller didn't use obscenities in Call No. 2. Many telemarketers do.

To the caller from the tele-fundraising boiler room: a Bronx cheer.

You know that old line about a silk purse being fashioned from a sow's ear? Cindy Byron saw a great sight recently that can only be called a piece of silty silk.

Whenever it snows, cars get coated by a grayish film that makes them look as if they have spent the past 15 years at the bottom of a lake. I'm not a big fan of car washes (too expensive, too careless). But even Levey the Cheap will plunk a few bucks to de-film his buggies.

Anyway, on the Fairfax County Parkway the other day, Cindy fell in beside a dark van. Its windows were totally film-covered. But some wag had written this on one of them, with a finger:

"Also Available in Blue."