At Large

AT&T Goes Dead

In New York these days it's easier to wait for Godot than for the arrival of phone service.

By 9.26.02

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AT&T, I am sure, is a very fine company. Dot-coms may come and go, while the Enrons and Tycos cast big business into disrepute, but AT&T is solid and respectable, corporate America's equivalent of mom's apple pie, with a track record going back years. On the other hand, things fall apart, and institutions decay, and I am beginning to fear the worst. When I first called AT&T and requested phone service, I was asked if New York City was in upstate or downstate New York, and if Nigeria was in Africa. Meanwhile I still do not have a phone.

But I write now more in sorrow than in anger, and I hope you do not think I am whining. My phone company experience has been revealing. It began just after I moved back to New York from Washington, and called an 800 number. You go through a menu -- press one for this, and two for that, and so on -- and eventually get a live person. The live person I got said she could not help me, but would connect me with someone who could. The someone turned out to be a young woman in El Paso, Texas.

The young woman -- at least she sounded young -- and I were on the phone for the best part of an hour. She frequently, and apologetically, put me on hold. I would tell her not to fret. We really became quite friendly. But I did start to worry when she asked me for the third or fourth time for my address in New York. Although I live on an ancient Manhattan avenue, she said she could not find it on her computer. It was then, I think, she asked me if New York was upstate or downstate.

So back and forth we went, and then she asked me where I made most of my overseas calls. Nigeria, I said, and once again she put me on hold. When she got back on the line, she asked me if that was in Africa. Then she told me I had best call another 800 number if I wanted to know about overseas rates. As for regular phone service, she said it would take 14 days before it began, but -- and I swear I am not making this up -- she did not have a calendar in front of her, and so she did not know exactly what date that might be.

None of this was reassuring, of course, but I still kept my faith. Anyway I soon got a letter, postmarked Maitland, Florida, confirming my order for the "One Rate Weekends Plan." Actually I did not recall ordering a weekends plan, but no matter. I was happy to hear from AT&T.

But I still did not know when my phone would be connected, and so once again I called. This time I spoke to a man in Pittsburgh, who told me my order had been canceled. It seems the young woman in El Paso had my address wrong, and that when AT&T checked the back-up phone number I supposedly had given her in case the company wanted to reach me, it turned out to be the phone number of someone in Georgia. In fact, I had given her the number of someone who lived not in Georgia, but only a block away.

The man in Pittsburgh said he was appalled by all this, and would do his best to straighten things out. He seemed like a nice man, and I think he meant it. He said he would take $25 off my first month's bill, and throw in some free overseas minutes to make up for all the mix-up. He also said I would soon hear from AT&T about when I could expect my phone service.

But I did not hear, and so once again I called, and got another woman in El Paso. She told me my new order for phone service had also been canceled -- she did not know why -- and then thoughtfully offered me a choice: I could call another 800 number and complain, or we could start all over again. I chose the latter, and so she picked out a new phone number for me, and then wished me every success.

Obviously all this was annoying, but sooner or later, I was sure, things would work out. AT&T would not let me down, and one day I would have a phone. Now, however, I am not so sure. I have gotten a letter, postmarked Kansas City, Missouri, from AT&T. I did not mind that it reversed my surname and given name; that was unimportant. What was disturbing was that the pretentious letter was barely literate, and might have been written by a low-level, third-world bureaucrat.

"Dear Mr. John," it began. "According to our records, you had recently placed an order on 09/13/02 for AT&T New York Local Service. Unfortunately, due to problems experienced during the order provisioning process, we were unable to complete the order for residential service."

So to restart the order provisioning process, it said, I should call another 800 number, and "an associate will be available" to help me.

And, in fact, I did call. Indeed I called twice, and both times I listened to recorded messages about all the swell AT&T products, but I never got through to an associate. I do not know what I will do now, and maybe I will do nothing at all. Meanwhile I brood about corporate America, and try not to think about the decline of the West.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.