'Bob Levey speaking."
"What a contrast! You answer on the first ring, and you're exactly the man I need. Amazing! Incredible!"
"I beg your pardon, Sir?"
"I'm sorry, Bob. I'm a little wrought up."
"I'm sure you did. Sorry. Listen, my name isn't important. But my story is very important."
"If you say so, Sir. What kind of story is it?"
"I just tried to call the District Building to find out about my father's death certificate. He died a year ago yesterday. I needed the certificate to finish with the life insurance. So I called the main District Building information number. I figured the whole thing would take about 15 seconds."
"I have a feeling it didn't."
"Bob, I have never run into such incompetence in my life, and I'm 57 years old!"
"Let me hear it from the top, Sir."
"The information operator gives me the number for the vital records division. I call them, and a woman answers. I start to explain what I want when she dumps me on hold, for 10 minutes. So I hang up and try again."
"Same woman answers. I start to explain again. I get dumped on hold again. Five more minutes this time. So I give up again, and call back again."
"Did you blow up at her?"
"Well, I wouldn't call it blowing up. I'd say I just let off a little steam. Nothing real bad. I just told her I had been dumped on hold twice and I'd be damned if she was going to do it to me again."
"Let me guess. She told you she didn't have to listen to words like that and she hung up on you."
"Worse. She said she was very busy, she had a lot of calls, and there was no way she could avoid putting me on hold. Then she put me on hold again! She didn't even say she was sorry!"
"I don't imagine you stayed on hold for too long."
"Maybe three seconds. I called District Building information back, trying to get the number of the vital records supervisor. And do you believe this? Information refused to give it to me!"
"Did they say why?"
"Yeah, they said supervisors don't take calls from the public, that the number I had just tried three times was the only number for the public to call in on. Do you believe that? I pay the supervisor's salary, and I can't even call him on the phone!"
"Well, I'm not outraged yet, Sir. If a supervisor spent all day doing what his staff should do, he couldn't get much supervising done."
"True. But there has to be a way for me to get through to a person and not a hold button, doesn't there? So I called the mayor's office."
"I'll bet that did you a whole lot of good."
"Perhaps you've tried it yourself?"
"I gave up trying years ago."
"Well, I just joined the club. A secretary answered -- very polite. She listened for a few seconds, and then she said, 'I'm sorry, the mayor doesn't handle this sort of thing. Let me transfer you to the information operator.' Back to where I started! What's that old expression? You know, from Monopoly? About passing go?"
"You must be thinking of, 'Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Don't pass go. Don't collect $200.' "
"Right! Gee, when you grow up, Bob, you might get a job at the District Building."
"Do I sound that nuts?"
"No, you don't. But back to the problem: Is there anything that can be done?"
"Sir, two months after Marion Barry took office, he did the boldest thing I have ever heard a D.C. politician do. He told a press conference with a straight face that within a couple of weeks, any citizen would be able to call any office in the District government and get 1) a straight answer and 2) a courteous, competent answer. But it's years now since that promise, and the problem's not fixed yet."
"Why isn't it?"
"I think it's a question of too few people and too little training. The woman you reached probably has to work a counter, dig out records and type letters, besides answering the phone. Is it any wonder she reaches for the hold button? She can't manage things any other way. But if all she had to do was answer the phone, and she was trained properly, you'd see a dramatic improvement."
"Why doesn't the city see this, too?"
"They look at a situation like this and all they see is a salary. And health benefits. And a huge pension stretching 50 years into the future. And some time-and-motion guy says, 'Maybe we'll hire more people next year, when we can afford it. But this year, we're going to have to make do.' "
"I suppose you're right. But why did the mayor say it would all be better, when it obviously isn't?"
"The mayor drives a car with license plate No. 1, Sir. Do you think he ever gets treated this way by a clerk on the phone? If you told him what happened to you, he'd probably say, 'I don't believe it. It never happens to me.' "
"Aren't politicians wonderful?"
"Hey, Sir, you said that, not me."