It started last January. I would hear my second line, the one that connects to my fax machine and computer modem, ring at all hours, but especially at night. No fax ever materialized. During the day I’d have difficulty signing on to the Internet; sometimes voices would emanate from my computer when I tried.

In early February something finally clicked. I picked up the fax’s handset and heard a conversation taking place. It was in Spanish. “Hello? Hello?” I called into the receiver. “Who’s there?” Eventually the female voices hung up.

I called 611, Ameritech’s repair number, and asked for a service person to be sent out. They gave me their usual hostage-taking order to shackle myself to home between 8 AM and 4 PM on February 10. I wondered why telephone repair people don’t use the tool of their trade and call an hour or two in advance.

No one showed. I called to complain. Sonya, from the Springfield office, informed me this was because the problem had been fixed. In the following days I came to discover that Sonya was wrong. The next time I called 611, I asked to speak to a supervisor. Debbie Wagner, from the Milwaukee office, had no record of my previous call. She lulled me with an “update.” It seemed the problem I was experiencing was areawide, and Ameritech was working to correct it.

I took to picking up the fax handset often to check on the availability of my line. When it was “in use” I’d try to communicate with my phone mates. What number were they calling from? Generally, they’d speak Spanish to each other for a few seconds and then hang up. Once, however, I heard someone speaking English. I asked his phone number, and he hesitantly tossed off a number the same as mine but with a couple of digits transposed. I helpfully repeated the number back to him, putting the digits in their correct order. Was that it? Yes, yes, same number, he replied. His tone modulated slightly to frustration. He’d already complained to Ameritech many times, he sighed. I chastised myself for so quickly assuming that these were interlopers. Thereafter, at least until I met Rich, I referred to them as my family of Hispanics.

The cables in my area, if I was to believe Ameritech, were not behaving. If I’d made friends with my neighbors I could have checked out the status of their cables, but seven years just flew by. So had to call 611 again. It was Sonya! No record of my previous calls appeared in her system and she didn’t remember me, much less that she’d told me my problem had been fixed. “Don’t get yourself upset,” Sonya counseled. But she scheduled a service call for February 23. She assured me that all the work would be done outdoors, so no inconvenience to me! On the morning of the 24th I bounded to the telephone.

Which was the same as always. When I called 611 that day I found myself speaking to Greg We’re-not-allowed-to-give-our-last-names. Greg wouldn’t say if the problem was inside or outside, areawide or just me. He’d never heard of Sonya and he had no record of any previous calls. But he promised me my telephone service would be fixed by March 3.

It was March 7 when I gathered my fortitude and tried again. John Hertzer, a supervisor, said he knew nothing of any previous phone calls and broken promises. So I yelled. The term “Do you know who I am?” crossed my mind, but remembering the answer I let it go. But credit where it’s due. Rich the repairman showed up the next day.

Turns out it was an inside job. I told him about my experiences. He shook his head. “Welcome to my world,” he said. “I get people ready to kill me when I show up.” I told him about my family of Hispanics and he shook his head in the same disapproving way.

“What you have is a simple case of cutting corners.” When my second line was connected a few years earlier, Rich said, the service person didn’t bother to disconnect that number’s old line. He told me the people usurping my phone line lived around the corner, and he conjectured that when they moved in they must have plugged in their phone, heard a dial tone, and realized this was no ordinary jack–it was a jackpot.

It was time to deal with all the extra charges on my bill run up by the family around the corner. I called Ameritech billing. After some wrangling, Carolyn Maddix, an account executive in Indianapolis, called me back. What might have been a simple matter was not. Maddix said I would have to request MUD sheets (itemized lists of calls, or Minutes Used Detail), which would cost me $3 per month though the first month was free. Then I would have to scour my phone calls and highlight the ones I didn’t recognize. She would look them over and get back to me.

I asked her if she could remember every number she’d dialed in the last three months. I told her that this was my business line, and there were scores of fax numbers I wouldn’t remember. In light of the hardship I’d endured, I said, a credit for all my calls during that time would be more appropriate. But I’d be willing to pay the $70 charge for a call I’d made to the Netherlands.

Maddix fell silent. Wondering how I, the victim, had been transmogrified into the criminal, I got louder. As if dealing with a hormonal teen, Maddix suggested that when I was ready to discuss it I should give her a call.

I turned to the Citizens Utility Board, the utility watchdog, and CUB passed me along to the Illinois Commerce Commission. Debra Lewis took my case. She told me she would submit a formal complaint on my behalf over the disputed charges. Ameritech would have two weeks, until March 25, to respond. In the meantime, Ameritech would send me the MUD sheets, and while my case was pending I was legally protected from disconnection.

I soon got my first bill from Ameritech since the start of my troubles. It told me that $180 worth of calls had been made to Mexico. The next bill would bring that total up to roughly $500. The last phone call to Mexico was placed on March 7. My phone was fixed the morning of March 8.

On April 7 I received a bright red flyer from Ameritech that identified itself in 24-point type as a Final Notice Prior to Disconnection. Remembering Lewis’s briefing, I wasn’t especially worried, but it annoyed me that I hadn’t heard back from her about my complaint. I hadn’t received any MUD sheets either. I called her. She couldn’t find my file.

My phone problem had become the central issue in my life. Friends and family were given blow-by-blow updates. My sister Jo would hear about it every time she called. She happened to call on April 17, the morning my phone was disconnected and reconnected, otherwise known as the day I crawled to Maddix using my cell phone and begged for my service back. It was hard to tell if she experienced any satisfaction; her preternatural calm never betrayed her. She made no promises, but an hour later my lines were back on.

At the time, my sister Jo was a department office manager for a national company. She gave me the name and number of their Ameritech representative, and he came to my rescue. Our conversation proceeded like a meeting in a spy film. He spoke in hushed tones, his voice grave. “Call Pat Engles,” he said. “The buck stops at her desk.” Engles is the vice president of consumer affairs. He gave me her number and instructed me to eat the piece of paper it was written on and for the love of God to forget his name. I called and Engles’s assistant, Angela Richard, promptly called me back. That was all it took to wipe my slate clean.

The story should end here. David defeats Goliath and switches to a kinder, gentler–and 15 percent cheaper, according to their marketing information–provider. I even coined a poignant closing line to this story: “Welcome to the 21st Century, Ameritech! I have.”

Kafka fans, read on.

On November 14, I call 21st Century. I hold the sales rep on the phone until I make sure all the features I want to keep in my service remain intact. Rosalie the rep assures me that the switch will be seamless, though due to Ameritech’s unpredictability it could take up to 30 days. But not to worry–“someone will give you a call before the switch takes place.” In the meantime, 21st Century will be sending me a welcome package.

On November 17 I begin hearing reports that whenever my friends call me on line one they’re bounced to a recording that says I am no longer a subscriber. Line one now never rings at all, and on November 20 line two goes dead. The term “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” dances in my head, but I remain hopeful. I call 21st Century’s 800 number several times but keep hanging up because the wait time is so long–30 to 45 minutes each time. I try at 10 PM and wait a full hour, enduring Muzak and a too-loud recording that every 45 seconds asks for my patience and reassures me of the importance of my call. When customer service finally picks up, this is what I say to him: “Oh, thank God. I’ve been waiting for an hour. What’s going on over there?” There is a moment of silence and he hangs up just like that.

I wake at 6:30 AM and try again. A “trouble ticket” will be put in, says customer service, and I’ll be assigned to a “case specialist.” Twenty-four hours later I still have no service and no one has called me. I call again, and Dolores promises to “walk over” to my case specialist’s desk and check on the status of my ticket. She comes back with a direct number to Desiree, who she says will arrive at noon.

There is no speaking to a supervisor. It seems that at 7 AM they’re all in a meeting.

Desiree never calls.

But supervisor Betty Pena calls at about 2 PM, full of apologies and promises. When I tell her that I was hung up on she actually gasps in horror. She defends Desiree, however, saying Desiree was never given my case. When I ask her to explain the confusion, she tosses it into the lap of–Ameritech!

“We share a central office with them,” she says. “We’re their customer. And just between you and me,” she adds, “the battle’s been going on for eight months. We’re losing so many customers and we keep backtracking it to Ameritech.” According to Pena, it is Ameritech that owns the wires and therefore controls the switchovers.

Desiree calls. She solves most of my problems in a matter of minutes, while I wait on the line. This, of course, calls into question Betty’s assertion that Ameritech is solely responsible for switchovers. Over two weeks later I still don’t have voice mail, nor have I received the welcome package Rosalie promised. But I do have my first bill. It’s as indecipherable as Ameritech’s, though I can see I’ve been charged $7.50 for voice mail setup. My total monthly service charge is $48.42, and guess what?–21st Century doesn’t offer “wait and see” caller ID. My total monthly service at Ameritech was $43.05. Where and how the 15 percent savings will materialize, I can’t say. If Pena ever calls me back I’ll ask her. I’ve put in four more calls to her and another to Desirée. All without response.

Last night I had a dream. It took place in the employee lounge of the office shared by Ameritech and 21st Century. Ameritech customer service reps–Sonya, Greg, and Maddix too–were giving pointers to the 21st Century staff. They were teaching them the “snuff”: hanging up on the customer before he or she can utter a first breath. And the “gaslight”: pretending you have no record of the desperate customer’s previous complaints. And, best of all, the “terminator”: the laws-be-damned disconnection of phone lines while cases languish with the Illinois Commerce Commission.

When I awoke, I lay in bed pondering a counterattack. Maybe customers could stick with one company just long enough to get a notice of disconnection for nonpayment and then hop en masse to the competition? I thought of the Wild West, of bandits accountable to no one. The term “no controlling legal authority” popped into my head.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.