This column has a high regard for the men and women who work for the C&P Telephone Co. However, there are times when their corporate parent, Mother Bell, does things that make a fellow wish he could take a swing at the dear old girl with a baseball bat.
Consider, for example, a news story that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post. What it told us, in brief, is that the District government has four emergency telephone numbers listed in the Washington phone book - allegedly numbers that citizens can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for quick help in cases involving rape, attempted suicide, drugs and child abuse.
But, alas! Our news story said that all four of the round'the -clock emergency numbers are wrong. Nobody answers three of them, and no operator or recording cuts in to reveal that these are dead numbers. The fourth number is answered by a switchboard other than the one the caller wants. When callers eventually go through the tedious routine of calling Directory Assistance, C&P operators give them substitute numbers - but three of the four substitute numbers are also wrong.
There is disagreement between Mother Bell and the District government as to which of them is to blame for which aspects of this snafu. Districts Liners will therefore reserve judgement. Meanwhile we will discuss some other relatively recent Mother Bell System policies that drive phone callers up the wall.
When a subscriber moves to a new address, which probably doesn't happen anymore than a thousand times a day, he is usually assigned a new phone number. In earlier and happier times, the abandoned number would lie idle for at least six months before before being reassigned. During those six months, calls directly to the abandoned number would be routed to an "intercept operator" who would give out the subscriber's new number.
These days, however, the dead number is reassigned with unseemly haste. Thirty days after good old Joe Has moved (without telling you), you dial his number and reach a man named Harry who sounds as if he is 6 feet 5, weighs 275 pounds, has a nasty disposition, and is sick and tired of receiving calls from people who want to talk to Joe. In responding to complaints about cases of this kind, it has not yet occured to Bell System officials to suggest that the District government is to blame.
Another policy they can't blame on others: To save money ("and keep rates low"), the Bell System has become quite uncooperative with people who want to verify that a number that rings "busy" is really busy.
This is particularly annoying because a number that rings busy may be out of order instead. There is no way for the caller to know.
Here's how it works: A few days ago, Mitch Kurman was in town to testify before a Senate subcommittee on the Youth Camp Safety Act. He came to my office the night before and we conferred until 2 a.m. At 7 a.m., when I got home, I thought of something else I ought to say to him before he took the stand at 9:15. So I dialed his local phone number.
It was busy. I dialed again five minutes later. Still busy.
I dialed every five minutes for two hours - until 9 a.m. Busy, busy, busy.
At that point I dialed "Operator," and when she answered I said, "Verification, please."
What number are you calling?" she asked. I groaned and told her. I knew what was about to happen.
She dialed the number, it rang busy, and she cheerfully announced, "That number rings busy, sir."
"I am aware of that," I said as icily as I could. "I have been dialling it for two hours, and I know what a busy ring sounds like. What I want to know is whether it is really bussy or is out of order. That's why I asked you to connect me with Verification."
"I will rrrring Verification for you," she said in the tone of a lady who has just been insulted.
It took 10 seconds to confirm what I had suggested for the past hour. My friend wasn't long-winded. His line was just out of order. But if I hadn't battled through to victory over MOther Bell's obstructionist policies, I never would have known it.
And now for the saddest part of this column: It is the fashion these days for reporters to disclose their financial interests in things they write about, so it is my duty to report that my wife bought 100 shares of AT&T two weeks ago. When she sees this, she'll probably throw me out of the house for criticizing "her" company.