The telephone is Washington's chief means of doing business. Unfortunately, it's also Washington's chief means of doing battle, largely because of the people who answer phones in offices.

These folks would probably tell you that they are paid to facilitate communication. In fact, they often frustrate it, by playing a role that combines the worst aspects of gatekeeping, baby-sitting and just plain lying.

Dear Lord, how many times have I placed a call, and tumbled head-first into the following script?:

"National Dyspepsia Foundation."

"May I speak to Ms. Burblegut, please? Bob Levey at The Washington Post calling."

"Just a moment, please."

The "moment" becomes three minutes, all of it spent sitting on glorious hold. Then it's: "I'm sorry, but Ms. Burblegut is in conference." (Translation: she doesn't feel like talking to me now).

"May I leave a message, please?"

"Well, um, could you call back later?" (Translation: neither the phone-answerer nor Ms. Burblegut feels like talking to me ever).

"I could call back later, but I'd rather she called me when it's convenient for her. So let me leave my name and number, please. It's Bob Levey. That's L-E-V-E-Y."

"Could you spell that last name again? (Translation: I was too lazy to pay attention the first time)."

"Sure, it's L-E-V as in Victor . . . ."

"Y."

"No, the last two letters are E-Y."

"Wait a minute, is the full name L-E-E-Y?"

"No, it's . . . . "

And on into the sunset, as what should have been a 10-second encounter stretches out to 45, or, on occasion, 90. The only positive byproduct is that you sure do think of clever ways to commit murder while you're spelling your surname for the 17th time.

But not all sin rests with those who field calls. Andrea E. Clayton puts the shoe on the other foot and says: Callers need to exhibit a little understanding, too.

Sister Clayton is the office manager for a TV news bureau on Capitol Hill that has clients all over Sunbeltdom. Understandably, the phone never stops. Neither do colloquies like this:

Andrea: "I'm sorry, Ms. Neu (that's Cynthia Neu, the boss) is in a reporters' meeting. May I take a message?"

Voice: "Yeah, this is Tom. Tell her that I called." And he starts to hang up.

A: "May I have your number, Tom?"

T: "She knows it." And he starts to hang up again.

A: "It would be quicker for her to return the call if she had your number right in front of her. Your number, please?" He gives it, reluctantly.

"And your company name?" He gives that reluctantly, too.

"And what is your call in reference to?" Again, Tom produces, with reluctance.

"By this time," Andrea writes, "Tom wants to come through the phone and strangle me for asking so many questions. But what he doesn't realize is that I am asking him the questions to help him, not to harass him."

Do you recognize yourself as a Tom? If so, you might want to recognize something else: the validity of Andrea's point. Not every phone-answerer flunked charm school and the second grade.

When Rose Garon was 7 years old, and living in Washington, she entered a citywide essay contest that asked contestants to describe their home town. At the same time, Virginia Rezents did the same in and about Honolulu, Hawaii. Both girls won, and they struck up a correspondence. Over the next 62 years, they have been the most faithful of pen pals.

However, in all that time, the two women had never met. Each knew everything there was to know about the other's children, grandchildren, dogs and cats -- but only through Christmas and birthday cards, not through face-to-face contact.

Contact finally took place last month, in California, where both women were visiting daughters.

"It's a dream come true," said Rose, who now lives in Miami Beach. "We have gone through six decades together, and it's the most beautiful reunion."

Virginia was too bashful to talk about the penpalmanship. But Rose reports that both women have promised to keep the correspondence alive.

Moral of the story: You never know what you can start with a pencil and a stamp.

Marshall Waters of Alexandria defines "perfection" as the way a June grad describes himself on a job application.