by JIM KNIPFEL
January 16, 2011
“Who’s this?” the man crouched by the bedroom wall asked as he nodded toward the stereo.
“Bob Wills,” I told him. “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.”
“Oh. It sounded like Hank Williams.”
“Nope. Bob Wills predates him by a few years. Was around for a long time after him, too.”
“When was Hank Williams Jr. around?”
“Well . . . Hank Williams, Jr. is still around. You mean Hank Williams?”
“Yeah. I need to find someone who was popular in the forties. Someone who was popular around the same time as the Andrews Sisters.”
The man was not crouching in my bedroom to discuss music history. He was actually there (theoretically) to hook up the phone. He wasn’t from my phone company—he worked for another one—but he was still supposed to be switching on my phone.
It’s a bit of a story.
A few days before moving into the Bunker, I called my phone company to make all the necessary arrangements. I spoke with a very friendly service rep named Andy who got all the information, and seemed genuinely apologetic when he told me I would have to get a new number, even though I was moving within Brooklyn.
“That’s okay,” I told him. “I don’t talk to that many people.”
Everything seemed fine, and my phone was supposed to be operational on Monday, four days after moving in. It also meant I’d have no email, and thus no direct contact with the outside world for those four days. That was fine with me, too—I’d have plenty to do as it was, unpacking and whatnot.
When Monday morning arrived, however, I awoke with the dread premonition that my phone would not be working come day’s end. Things never happen when people say they will anymore. I spent the day trying to convince myself that it really would happen—that it had to happen—but somehow I knew it wouldn’t. Why would it take them four days, anyway? Aren’t these things done remotely? Hit a damn key on the computer and boom the phone comes on.
I realize that in this age of digital wireless communication, what with your WiFi and your iPhones, all this might seem ridiculous, but the land line is all I’ve got, and I prefer it that way.
Every half hour or so I stopped what I was doing and snatched up the receiver hoping to hear a dial tone, then standing there for a few long seconds holding the thing to my ear listening to the silence.
When five o’clock came and I knew for certain nothing was going to happen that day, I tromped upstairs and knocked on my neighbor’s door. The neighbor couple—the only other people in the building—had been extraordinarily kind and helpful up to that point. I didn’t want to bother them with another favor, but I saw no way around it.
“I was wondering,” I said when the door opened, “if I might bother you for the use of your phone.”
A moment later I was handed a mobile phone and shown how to operate it. It seemed simple enough. Standing there in the hallway, I dialed the phone company’s number.
The rep answered the phone by saying “Let me know how I can make you a satisfied customer today!”
“Well, I sure hope so,” I replied, immediately realizing my response made little sense. I tried to recover by explaining to her that my phone was supposed to be turned on that day, but wasn’t.
She consulted my file to see what might have possibly gone awry.
“Oh,” she said a minute later. “It seems you’ve been labeled a security threat.”
“A what, now?” For some reason I was not terribly surprised to hear this. So this was it—the evil, invisible forces that rule the world had finally started reading the column, and placed me on the enemies list. First they would cut off my contact with the outside world, then they would poison my beer.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t turn on your phone until you get this cleared up . . . I’m going to have to put you through to our fraud department.”
The line went dead. A moment later a man picked up. “Hello?”
“Yes, hello,” I said more loudly.
“Umm, the operator just patched me through . . . is this the fraud department?”
“No. This is my personal cell phone.”
“I see . . . so I take it that means you aren’t there to help me with my phone troubles.”
“I’m sorry, but no.”
“It’s not your fault. Thanks anyway.”
I hung up and dialed the original number again, where another operator gave me the direct number to the fraud department before patching me through. This time I actually did reach the fraud department, but in the middle of a sentence, the line was disconnected. I sighed, and dialed the direct number the operator had given me. The phone rang three times before someone picked up.
“Crime Victims Support Unit,” a woman said.
I rolled my eyes. “I take it you aren’t with the phone company, either.”
“Never mind. I might be needing your help soon, but not quite yet. I’ll keep the number handy.”
My neighbor walked past and, obviously overhearing what was going on commented, “As Gore Vidal once said, ‘nobody knows anything anymore’.”
I hung up again and dialed the original number a third time, thinking that maybe I should reconsider my loyalty to a phone company that couldn’t even patch me through to another fucking department within their operation.
Well, after some doing, the woman at the fraud department explained that the young man who’d taken my initial order made three typos while filling out the necessary forms. In turn those three typos resulted in any number of flags on my account that led the phone company to believe I was a high-ranking al Qaeda operative.
“I see,” I told her.
It took a few minutes, but I was eventually able to convince her that I did not in fact have several sticks of dynamite strapped to my chest at that very moment.
“Okay then,” she said. “It looks like we’re all clear here.”
“So I won’t be detained and beaten next time I go to the airport?” I confirmed.
“Not for this,” she said. “The problem is that now we won’t be able to get your phone service turned on until sometime next week.”
“I see,” I said.
“Unless you wanted to start a new account and get a new phone number.”
“Umm . . . no. No, I don’t think I want to do that at this point.”
So I was looking at another week with no phone and no email. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that these days the publishing industry works almost exclusively via email—and the phone was my only contact with Morgan. I’d deal with it, yes, but this was an enormous pain in the ass.
Then my neighbor, a lawyer by trade, suggested that he could pretend to be my attorney and play the blind card on my behalf. I voted against it, but was overruled.
Two days later there was a man from another phone company crouching near the wall in my bedroom, asking about Hank Williams. He was there on behalf of my original phone company. (Perhaps they sent someone from the competition still believing that I was to be considered a security threat. Why put their own people in danger?)
“Hank Williams recorded in the late forties and early fifties. Then he died in fifty-three.””
”That won’t work then. I need someone like him, but from the mid-forties.”
“Well, there’s always Sinatra. Or Louis Prima. Or Bob Wills here.”
“I’m not a big Sinatra fan.”
He paused, and I hoped it meant he would finally start working on the damn phone. “I should explain, just so you don’t think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy. I have problems like that every day.”
“See, I’m writing a novel. A sequel, actually. The first one took place in 1945, this one takes place in forty-six, and I want to have a character make reference to a singer who was popular at the time, but someone who audiences today would still recognize.”
“Well, you can’t go wrong with Sinatra,” I suggested, really, really wishing he would get the phone hooked up so I could get to work.
“It’s an adventure fantasy novel, and between you and me, I think it’s gonna be as big as Harry Potter or Twilight. Would you like to hear the story?”
I was beginning to think that the “security threat” business was just the beginning of my troubles with the telephone company.
I let him tell me all about his novel, and answered all of his questions about the mechanics of the publishing business. What choice did I have? I was being held hostage. When he left that afternoon after finally getting the phone up and running, he thanked me for my help.
A week later, my phone went dead.
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