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Polis Report

The 411

By Ami Chen Mills

Until recently, if you had no one to call, you could always dial 411, where a pleasant person would discuss with you the spelling of odd last names, geographical areas covered by area codes, maybe even the weather. But no longer. Now, when you dial 411 in many area codes, you are confronted by a computer which asks in a firm voice, "Which city please?" and then "Name please?" and then, for a few heady seconds, a live operator gets on to say, "Here you go," and before you can say, "But I­" or "Do you­?" you have been transferred back to computer Nowhereland. It all happens so fast!

Unless the computer can't digest the name. Or sometimes you don't know the city, only the code. This happened to me on Florida 411, where I kept saying to the computer, "I don't know what city!" and the computer replied, more firmly, and with the slightest trace of of hostility, "Please say the name of your city." So I said, "The name of your city."

When the operator came on, she was not amused. None of the operators seem amused anymore. Of course, I ended up with the wrong number. When I called back, again I had no names, so I just yelled "Operator, please!" over and over into the soul-sucking vacuum of the automated system.

Finally, I got an operator. I told her that I was frustrated by the new system and she said, "Every third person tells us that." I told her to put me through to a supervisor, who took my complaint so officiously it occurred to me that she may be the woman who made the "Name please?" recordings. I didn't ask. According to one supervisor at a local Pac Bell 411, the 411 you get when you dial out of your area code (to 555-1212) is determined by your long-distance company. Different companies own or contract different 411's in various regions. Thank God Pac Bell has no plans, that she's aware of, to go automated--"yet," she adds.

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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