Comrades, Wash Your Hands of This

WHEN Siberian miners went on strike recently in the Soviet Union, one of their complaints was the lack of soap. Each miner receives about a pound of soap a month, hardly sufficient to remove the daily sweat and grime of mining. In a backward way their plight reminded me that for months I had intended to call the toll-free telephone number displayed on the brand of soap I use. I discovered the number on the aquamarine wrapper along with the words, ``Questions? Comments? Call Toll Free.''

The irony is that society in the United States is awash in consumer goods, including so many brands and kinds of soap that manufacturers give their soaps phone numbers so that we can tell them apart. In Siberia, soap is a life-and-death matter. There, the miners strike for basic cleanliness; here, in the cradle of free enterprise, manufacturers engage in soap wars to publicly differentiate one from another.

So, on behalf of Siberian miners and my curiosity, I called the number on my bar of soap. A recorded message responded: ``All our agents are busy. Please hold and someone will be with you as soon as possible.''

I was entertained by ice-skating music for about a minute, then a cheery man told me my bar of soap was not really soap. ``It's a blend of ingredients,'' he said, ``such as animal fats, beef or pork, tallowate, and other stuff, and for lather and rinse it has to have magnesium.''

``How many agents do you have answering questions about soap?''

``Well, there are different departments. This is bar soaps and household cleaners. Then there's food, and there's hair care.''

``You must get a range of questions.''

He laughed. ``One woman called and asked if she could use rug softener on her hair, and once I spent a half hour on a disc jockey show talking about soap.''

``Do you enjoy your job?''

``My wife says I talk about soap in my sleep.''

``Did you know there is a lack of soap in Siberia?''

He paused. ``Well, I'm not surprised.''

``The miners there need soap.''

``I'd like to help them, but we don't sell soap in Siberia.'' I hung up and called again, assuming there was more than one agent. After I'd listened to harp music for a moment, a woman's pleasant voice said, ``May I help you?''

``Yes, would you mind if I asked you how many agents you have answering soap questions?''

``I'm sorry, I can't tell you that. I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about [soap].''

``I just wondered how many people are there with you to answer soap questions?''

``Sir, that information is confidential.'' Her voice was firm. ``Confidential.''

``Why?''

``Because the company wants to operate that way.''

``Could I get the information if I wrote a letter?''

``You would be wasting your time.''

``I was just curious,'' I said. ``Thanks, anyway.''

``That's all right. Now, for my telephone records, do you mind if I ask you your zip code?''

I thought a few seconds. ``Sorry,'' I said, ``that's confidential.''

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