Actress-comedian Lily Tomlin has won multiple awards, including Tony, Emmy, and Grammy awards. All this is true, of course; and my favorite Lily Tomlin role actually was Deborah Fiderer in West Wing.
But, it was as telephone operator "Ernestine" on TV's Laugh-In that made her someone I always look forward to seeing in any performance.
Ernestine would dial-up some phone company customer and you'd hear "that's one Ringy-Dingy...two Ringy-Dingy" until the unsuspecting subscriber "answered." In one bit available on youtube.com she threatens an unseen party for not paying a bill of some $20. When he doesn't want to pay, Ernestine proceeds to relate the customer's financial statement and tax returns (Ma Bell knows all). Another time she uses a CIA phone book to get an unlisted number. In a later bit she says, "We don't care, we don't have to...we're the phone company."
It is funny, even years later, because we've all had to deal with the phone company. Lily went on to bigger and better things; Ernestine lives still.
The first time I got a phone there was only one phone company ("Ma Bell"), only one phone choice (black), and you did it their way on their terms. Fifty years since my unfailing experience has been the hardest people on earth to do business with on the phone are telephone company employees.
Last week I ventured again into the valley of the shadow of Ma Bell (no longer called that, but the mindset thrives). As Dante would have said, "abandon hope all ye who enter here."
For indiscernible reasons our phone service is tied to high-speed Internet. This worked well enough for about three years; even get an occasional e-mail for some far-off Blog reader. About two weeks ago I suddenly couldn't check my mail -- just kept me running around in circles. But, my phone company has a special line just for residential user of their DSL service. I'd just call and find out what's going on.
Apparently a system has been nearly perfected to defend live employees from ever having to talk to paying customers. You just call and push requested numbers until the system cuts you off. On my third attempt somehow defeated their defenses and got as far as being put on Hold for a technician who would be with me "in a few minutes." Didn't keep track, but apparently I was on Hold long enough to time-out. The line went dead.
Next day, mostly out of curiosity, timed how long I was on Hold before cut off -- two-hours and 15 minutes.
Time to try a different approach: Live Chat line. This lets you "talk" to a customer service rep via on-screen response. He texted me their phone number. After explaining the two-hour thing, he offered to have someone to call me, if I gave him a phone number (he didn't have it after my entering it into their system three times).
Someone did call. He assured me he'd put me direct through to a tech without having to be on Hold. After a 20-minute wait he broke in to assure me they'd call back as soon as a tech was free. I'm still waiting for that call back.
Two hours later I ventured again into the valley of the shadow of voice recognition software [at this point it was me or them]. Oddly enough after only an hour I actually got someone to talk to (Saturday seems to be a good day to call). It was a male version of Ernestine. They'd been having trouble with some e-mail accounts, he stated matter-of-factly; why hadn't I just called tech support? He gave me an esoteric website to use to check my e-mail.
It worked, once.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com (I will read it, as soon as I'm off Hold).