Service with a sneer
Do I have too many phone lines or am suffering from premature senility? That's what I ask myself when I can't remember all my phone numbers. I have a main number. A work number. A number for my wife's modem line. And a line for what used to be my modem line but which I haven't used since I got a cable modem.

Recently I attached a phone to that unused line, but I'd forgotten what its phone number was. In California you used to be able to dial 211-1111 and a pleasant voice would tell you the number you were calling from. This was an absolute necessity for ever-connected Californians who have rows of phone jacks indistinguishable from each another.

But for some reason this number no longer works. It's probably one of SBC/Pacific Bell's endless cost cutting measures which I imagine will culminate in them simply shutting off everyone's phone service while they still continue to send bills.

So I pressed O for the operator, waited on hold, then and asked, "What number am I calling from?"

The operator replied, "I can't tell you."

I was confused, "So you don't know?"

Sounding less human than a machine she replied, "I know, but I can't tell you."

"So, you can't tell me what number I'm calling you from, even though here I am calling from it?" I asked in disbelief.

"I can't access your records so I can't prove you are who you say you are." She intoned, even though I hadn't even said who I was.

"I see," I sighed, sort of seeing. I could imagine someone tapping into a phone junction box and trying to steal someone else's phone line but not knowing what number it was, should one of their criminal friends want to call them. "So how do I find this information?"

"I can't tell you that." She replied, as if I had asked for the President's nuclear codes and not my own telephone number.

I was struck dumb. I remember operators when I was younger and you could ask them anything—how long to cook a turkey on Thanksgiving, where to find a podiatrist—anything. If they didn't know they'd ask around and call you back. That's what I called service. Now I couldn't get one to reveal how to find out my own phone number.

Perhaps because the pause was uncomfortable she volunteered "You could call the billing office."

"What's their number?" I ask, stupidly expecting an answer.

"I can't tell you. And they're closed right now," she answered.

By this time I realize I'm on my own, so I conceive a cunning plan, "I could call a friend who has caller ID..." stopping when I realize I've already foiled myself, "but I have caller-ID blocking. How do I turn it off temporarily I?" I ask, thinking I might slip this past her.

"I can't tell you." She replied.

I thanked her (why???) and hung up. I remembered that this was the same phone company that told me they could only promise my modem would connect at 4,800 baud, 1/10th of what it should.

I pressed "O" again, thinking I could get another unsuspecting operator to reveal my phone number. A male operator answered.

"How can I help you?"

"Can you tell me what number I'm calling from?"

"I'm sorry, I can't tell you that."

"Can you tell me how to unblock my caller ID?"

"No, but you can call 611 phone repair and they might be able to."

It was clear PacBell wanted to dissuade anyone from calling the operator, and their cunning plan was working better than mine was. So I dialed 611, the number I thought you could only call if your phone wasn't working, which of course makes it hard to call, but apparently you can call it even when your phone works, which I did now.

I immediately received a recording, informing me that my call was important to them, but apparently not as important as the people unable to call from their broken phones, so I'd have to wait to speak to a human. I hung up.

I went to their web site to see if it had the secret to this now age-old question. I did a search on the site, which, when queried about "caller ID" was more than happy to tell me what to do if my phone was dead (call 611 for help) or how to stop anyone from calling me if their caller ID was off, but not how to turn mine back on.

Eventually after much searching the site revealed the secret which is... I've forgotten already because I was shocked the web site would give out information that was apparently so confidential actual human employees were sworn to secrecy about it. But there it was. For the record, it's "*82" or something I surely won't remember the next time I need it.

Unfortunately, my cell phone doesn't get any reception at my house so I couldn't try this out and no one I know has a caller ID box.

By this time my wife had come in wondering why I was making "exasperated noises." I said, "Do you know the phone number of our fourth line?" She replied, "Of course, it's..." and proceeded to tell me.

She was right as always. Though I have to say I felt a little uncomfortable that she would have dared to speak the number out loud. Hopefully no one from the phone company was listening. Well, that's a pretty safe bet.

Daniel Will-Harris

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No, the phone book wasn't an option—all my numbers are unlisted.



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The SchoomozeLetter is ©1998-2005, Daniel Will-Harris, all rights reserved. If you'd like to use any article on the web or in print, please ask for permission. If you're an agent or publisher looking to publish these pieces, just drop me a note.