Ernestine lives.

You remember Ernestine. If she seemed a bit irritable at times, it's because she had one of the more difficult jobs in creation. Her task was to serve as the interface between two groups fundamentally at odds with one another: normal people and the telephone company. And whatever your problem, there was no question whose side Ernestine was on, and it wasn't yours.

In the Seventies, when Lily Tomlin's wisecracking character was spawned, there was essentially only one telephone company: a few spots on the map were served by tiny telcos, but most everyone had to deal with the faceless behemoth American Telephone and Telegraph. And AT&T, protected by its legal status as a public monopoly, set a standard for customer service very much in line with Ernestine's lampoon: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the telephone company."

In the Eighties, AT&T was sentenced to death by government decree. The individual Bell telephone companies would be spun off into independent units, leaving the parent company with equipment manufacture and long-distance service. The motivation for this action was to introduce a measure of competition into the telephone market. At first, there was far more confusion than competition, but some actual marketplace reforms eventually fell into place: long-distance rates have dropped dramatically in the twenty years since the AT&T divestiture, and people have quit paying $5 a month to rent a phone they could buy for $20 at the discount store.

Still, the corporate structure at both AT&T and the Baby Bells apparently remains populated by Ernestine wannabes, to my ongoing annoyance. I had used AT&T as my long-distance carrier for most of the twenty years since the breakup, mostly out of inertia. In 2002, reasoning that postal rates would likely rise even faster than bank charges, I moved most of my bill-paying functions online, and I never had any problem with it until AT&T somehow lost an online payment. I called my bank, which duly researched the issue and announced that it had indeed been sent, using such-and-such a reference number on whatever date; however, they would be happy to resubmit the payment. I presented this information to the company, which informed me that I was late. I wrote out a check for the amount due, mailed it in, and called up the local Baby Bell, the company presently known as SBC, to switch my long-distance service.

I should have seen it coming. The next month's AT&T bill showed a credit balance. Over the next six months, I heard from them at least fifteen times, mostly by mail but once or twice over the phone, as they tried to woo me back. "But you owe me thirty dollars!" I complained. They still owe me thirty dollars.

Meanwhile, SBC, which had cut me a better deal on long-distance service, decided that they didn't need to accept online payments from me either. I called my bank, which duly researched the issue and announced that it had indeed been sent, using such-and-such a reference number on whatever date; however, they would be happy to resubmit the payment. Once burned and therefore twice shy, I asked them not to resubmit; I would use SBC's online-pay function and clear up the matter. The next month's SBC bill showed a credit balance equal to one month's billing, indicating that they'd managed to find the bank's payment after all, so I sent them no money. And inevitably, the month after that, they reversed the accounting entry and billed me for two months. I threw up my hands in despair and sent them a check for two months' worth.

But I threw up more than that this week when I saw how they'd handled my transfer of service to the new address. The scheduled date was 26 November, same as the closing on the house. All the phone jacks were dead, so assuming this was a technical problem, I called the repair-service people, who informed me that (1) the business office had failed to complete the transfer and (2) said business office would be closed until Saturday because of the holidays.

Bright and early Saturday morning, I was on the cell phone to the business office, which after ten minutes or so, not counting six or seven minutes on hold, informed me that the previous occupants had called in last week asking that their disconnect order be canceled because well, just because. I pointed out that this was exceedingly implausible, inasmuch as the previous occupants were using last week to move out, and the closing date had been set more than a month earlier. "Well..." Ernestine Jr. began. "Well, nothing," I said. "They're gone. I live here now."

Back on hold for a few more minutes, and then the Tomlinette told me that she'd consulted with her manager, and that they would process the disconnect order that morning, followed by my connect order, and that each action would take two or three hours, after which time everything would be hunky-dory.

By closing time, of course, nothing had been done, and the next day was Sunday, so they were closed again. I eventually wound up with an automated voice telling me that the service order would be completed Monday "between 8 am and 5 pm", a mere five days late. Still fuming, I called the cable company, which would be happy to provide me with local phone service but they couldn't do so before Tuesday.

Okay, fine. I know this is a difficult job they have; I used to do it in fact, I took a pay cut to stop doing it and my daughter does it today. But there is no excuse for this kind of crapola, and were I conducting business out of my home, I would be happily suing the bastards for the downtime they've inflicted. As it is, they get one more chance, mostly because they have my child on their payroll. But if SBC screws up again or, for that matter, if she gets fed up and leaves they can and will be replaced. I don't care. I don't have to. I'm the one writing the goddamn checks.

The Vent

1 December 2003

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 Copyright © 2003 by Charles G. Hill