Flavin’s Corner

Ma Hell

Last week a couple of my checks bounced which prompted my bank to charge me $52.00 in overdraft fees.  The bank graciously covered the checks, which allowed me to avoid being embarrassed (one check was to the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs for a quality photo of his granddad) or further financial penalties (the other was a rent check).  It wasn’t poor math skills that brought about the overdrafts, but rather a fraudulent billing by Verizon for cancelled DSL service.  Whether or not the telephone company is known as Verizon, Bell Atlantic, or some mutant offspring of AT&T, it's Ma Hell to me!

A couple of months ago I received a sales-call from Verizon about its DSL service.  As AOL (my Internet service provider) currently doesn’t offer DSL in Salem and a 56k dial-up connection has its limits, I thought I’d give Verizon a go.  Maybe it was the offers of a free ethernet card, external DSL modem, and a nifty little webcam, which caused me to overlook a friend’s Verizon DSL experience in Boston over the last year and a half.  Maybe that overweight telephone worker who showed up to install an internal DSL modem, computer illiterate and frustrated, and who cut his finger and bled all over the inside of my friend’s computer, was just a random character from an unwritten Twilight Zone episode.  Sure, every now and then when I visit him his DSL (Bell Atlantic at first, now Verizon) is down.  Hey, that’s Boston, not Salem!  It had to have been the webcam offer.  I made a wrong choice.

About a week into my free 30-day trial period, I gave up trying to configure Netscape to properly display Usenet newsgroups, and as I was unable to send e-mail to myself on the new Verizon DSL account, I called their toll-free help hotline.  It was a Saturday morning, I pushed various telephone numbers to navigate through the help maze to get to technical support, and after being on hold for only a few minutes a woman answered, but quickly stated she was unable to help me with newsgroups and my e-mail.  She put me on hold and twenty minutes later I hung up in disgust.

One week later I tried again.  I was put on hold for a half an hour, a fellow answered, was likewise unable to help me with newsgroups and e-mail, however he at least admitted that a significant number of calls had been coming in about e-mail problems (which I took to be a hint that Verizon was screwing up with cheap software and it was out of his hands).  That he couldn’t talk me through setting up Netscape to properly deal with newsgroups was weak and pathetic for a tech-support worker.  I was being inconvenienced and getting angry.  A week later I suffered from a toothache in the middle of the night and went to go online and look for a local dentist.  Verizon DSL was down and this settled the matter.  Sure, it came back in an hour, but the hope and trust was gone for good.  I cancelled my DSL account.

Now, this DSL stuff was risky and costly for me.  To install the ethernet card I purchased a special de-magnetized set of tools, washed my work-station free of kitty hairs and dust, grounded myself with arcane rituals, and opened the belly of my ‘puter beast.  [Note: I hold the opinion that attempting to rub one’s stomach in a circle while patting one’s head rids one of static electricity and also sheds a bit of geekiness so as to better face the installation task ahead.]  Repacking all the various components, waiting for the Verizon prepaid postage and insurance to arrive, then getting the box to the Post Office in a timely fashion was just part of the process.  I can’t complain too much about my disappointment with Verizon’s DSL service, as I was aware of the potential poor quality of their service when I agreed to the trial period, and ...that’s how it goes.  At least that’s how I felt before Verizon billed me and cost me money in overdraft fees.

I telephoned Verizon, waited for 25 minutes to talk with someone, and had one of the oddest telephone calls of my entire life.  The Verizon billing employee I spoke with was soft-spoken, sighed with frustration often, and admitted I had done everything expected of me concerning the cancelling of my account within the trial period and returning the components.  But, as Verizon is so large and not all departments are able to timely communicate with one another, they’d billed me for a month and a half of service, making an assumption over two months ago that I’d be happy and remain a customer.  When told of my overdraft fees, she sighed once more and said that Verizon discouraged using MasterCard debit accounts for potentially this very reason.  Then she sighed again, stuttered a bit, and informed me she had some more bad news.  Three weeks from now the billing department was going to charge my bank account $39.95 for another monthly fee, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.  She repeated that Verizon was too big.  After she gave me a confirmation number for a credit-refund, which would be issued sometime at the end of next month, I mumbled a thank you and hung up.  I was, and remain, amazed at Verizon’s corporate arrogance.  Well, amazed, dumbfounded, and royally pissed off!

I take this matter with Verizon personally.  As spokesperson James Earl Jones so tirelessly explains, Verizon is the union of GTE and Bell Atlantic.  After retiring from the Army in 1971, my father first taught with GTE at two different locations in Michigan, then managed a sizable chunk of southwestern Michigan (until the middle-of-the-night calls proved too annoying) for several months, before finally settling in to working for a subsidiary company of GTE  which handled large commercial accounts, like hospitals, airports, nuclear power plants, and the like.  He passed away in 1976 from associations with prostate cancer while employed with a GTE subsidiary.  Somewhere inside, I guess, I’m supposed to feel a loyalty of sorts to any GTE-related company.  So Darth Vadar tells me often that Verizon DSL is okay.  It wasn’t.  It’s not.  It probably never will be.

Wherever my father was stationed (except for his 1963 and 1968 tours in Vietnam), he took me into the humming hives of various telephone exchanges.  A few times we even visited telephone exchanges where he wasn’t stationed and we were just passing through and on vacation!  Security was tight in Munich, casual stateside, and non-existent in Panama.  He was proud of climbing poles during the Korean War and his wide grin shows through many surviving photographs.  During his time with GTE he took me to his work often, I typed my first short story on one of GTE’s typewriters (I especially recall the cool trip to the nuclear power plant he’d worked on), and telephones were often a subject of casual conversation (more so with the consumption of alcohol and a visit with his brother, who worked for the power company, and shared an interest in drawing schematics on paper napkins and climbing poles just for fun).  Yeah, an interest in telephones has always seemed basic, American, and sometimes kind of nerdy.

After the 1984 break-up of AT&T, I worked a rent-a-bum job at a Chicago office that was reorganizing, cleaning house, and getting rid of a massive amount of books, publications, documents, photographs, and miscellaneous paper ephemera.  Over a two day period I loaded carts with bits of history from various floors in the building and disposed of them in large dumpsters in the basement.  Toward the end of the disposal I began to pay close attention to what we were throwing in the dumpsters.  Several items were saved from destruction by quick eyes and quicker hands.

A copy of one of A. G. Bell's more well known letters.

One interesting manuscript in pencil was a testimonial about the 1851 invention of a “talking box” in Wisconsin and the first claimed electrically assisted audio communication on Mom Terra being the result of frogs talking to one another on a lightning rod device.  Another document, a typed, “Photostatic copy” of a letter written in 1903 by Alexander G. Bell, about and reproducing in the body of the letter an earlier March 25, 1878 letter, begins: “To The Capitalists of the Electric Telephone Company.”  Bell’s Scottish background offered business dealings with both England and America, but New England won out.  Right; New England Telephone gives rise to AT&T, gets split back to New England Telephone, morphed into Bell Atlantic, and has now become Verizon.  New England Telephone gets personal, too.

From 1978 to 1983, I dated a girl from Quincy, MA whose father was a New England Telephone employee.  The two of us went out together a few times.  One time we went into a bad section of Dorchester to buy meat at a kosher butcher-shop run by African Americans, another time to an Italian bakery in Rosindale for fresh bread and bagels, and then there was the trip to the New England Telephone exchange in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, where he sometimesused to work before coming down with stress and age-related diabetes after being in a car accident while a NET employee.  The New England Telephone guys I met sometime around 1982 were a lot like I now imagine the overweight and frustrated guy who bled all over the inside of my friend’s computer to be.  Union, cocky, slow as molasses to change, and somehow related to most construction workers on Boston’s Big Dig project. The workers have long seen the writing on the wall.  Our local telephone company is past tense, offices are hidden in occult locations, and Verizon is an impersonal, corporate vampire preying on the needy.

If any administration other than the current was in office, I’d suggest Verizon be broken up like AT&T before it.  It’s Ma Hell!  The class-action lawsuits in New York and elsewhere against Verizon are a good beginning.  I guess it’s up to me to go to small-claims court here in Salem and get my overdraft fees back. Maybe I’ll sue for an apology.  We’ll see.

Bell's life; click here.
Bell Family Papers; click here.

thinking about RCN,

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