Hard to say goodbye

People who complain because address-changing computers barter their names should be thankful they appear on junk-mail, rather than telephone, lists. A steady influx of CAR-RT SORT correspondence, after all, can be tossed toward the handiest waste receptacle, thus developing skills that readily improve one's performance on any basketball court, or stacked on the hearth, against a kindling shortage.

What possible benefit can be derived from a junk phone call? It cannot be tossed, stacked or ignored. A ringing phone must be answered. Any call might be the call from The Reader's Digest or Publishers Clearing House, and who could be so cruel as to deny some eager soul the opportunity to shout: ''Congratulations! You've won the sweepstakes grand prize!''? Not I.

Nine times out of nine, of course, my phone is rung by some poor reader who, the moment I say ''Hello,'' is primed to stumble through a script that explains why I cannot afford to live another insecure day without burglar bars or carefree aluminum siding on my house.

In my home of unbarred windows and rotting clapboard, these phone solicitations invariably jingle down the wire during the evening meal, leading me to conclude: solicitors either survive on midnight snacks after work or skip dinner altogether.

It is useless to vary your own dinner hour. The callers possess an infallible spy system that alerts them instantly, the moment you seat yourself at table . . . unless you dine at 10 p.m. or later, by which time I, for one, have lost all interest in sauteed mushrooms, Cornish game hens or cornflakes. Whatever happens to be tantalizing my taste buds, I am expected to pick up the receiver and speak a gracious ''Hello.''

Unable to outwit the solicitors' time clock, I have devised a few self-defense methods for combating electronic pollution during mealtime.

The burglar bar and aluminum siding folk, for example, rapidly lost interest in talking to me when I said I lived on the eighth floor of a town-house condo. Since this was not true, however, I was eventually caught when one of the callers, who did his homework, learned there is no eight-story town-house or condominium within ten miles of my residence. It is best to stick with the truth , if at all possible.

My next tactic - ''I rent'' - worked just as well and had the advantage of allowing me to return to cold soup with a cleared conscience. Unfortunately, it also cleared the phone line for the photographic studio.

This persistent solicitation promises a fantastic discount certificate for a fabulous family portrait, assuming the lucky person called can name which one of the three men signed the Declaration of Independence - John Hancock, John Adams or Button Gwinnett.

Not only do I have no place to hang a family portrait, I can spot a trick question when I hear one. Anticipating I would terminate this interrogation speedily the first time it was hurled at me, I confidently announced, ''Button Gwinnett.''

The caller exclaimed, ''Wow! That's correct!''

''Whoa!'' I shrieked, ''you are kidding!'' and dropped the phone.

Recovering from the shock, I grabbed an almanac. Button did sign. Since then, I have named Adams and Hancock, and I believe what we have here is a question for which there is, very simply, no wrong answer. I once tried ''none of the above.'' The studio so generously granted me a second chance - who was the ''Father of His Country,'' George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower? - I could not bring myself to suggest, ''Wasn't that Button Gwinnett?''

When I had accumulated certificates for nine family portraits, something had to be done. Thus, the ''brambles'' ploy was devised. This approach sets forth on the path of truth, from which it veers, inexplicably, into the first patch of brambles that comes to mind. For example:

''Do pets count as part of the family? Could my dog, I mean, be in the portrait?''

''Uh . . . I . . . er . . . well, sure. I guess.''

With the solicitor busy scanning his or her script for the proper response to this feedback, I add: ''Cold weather seems to make boa constrictors rather sluggish, but I suppose hot studio lights would rouse the creatures, don't you think?''

So far, no one at the studio has realized my query about serpentine sluggishness was merely a rhetorical irrelevance, tacked on for no good purpose, and I've enjoyed six weeks without hearing anyone mention portraits, Button or Wow.

One Friday evening, seductive Stella phoned to invite me and my wife to inspect a lakeside lot set aside especially for us at Neptune Cove . . . and incidentally, while we were visiting the property, IF we did so over the weekend , we could pick up our free gift. Wouldn't it be nice if that gift happened to be the videotape recorder? Yes, and it might have been, but when Stella admitted she was herself a tape recording, I suffered acute regurgitation which incapacitated me well into the following Tuesday.

Within a fortnight, Allen called. ''Hello,'' he said and paused. ''This is Allen.'' Pause. ''I am a computer . . . computer . . . computer.''

''Hello back at you, Allen. I am not . . . am not . . . will never be.''

''Probably you have just settled down . . . settled down . . . settled down after a hard day at work, but may I speak to you a few minutes . . . few minutes . . . few minutes about your insurance needs?''

I said, ''Actually, I was introducing my knife to a lamb chop'' as well as ''you mayn't,'' but stuttering Allen went right on predicting the horrors awaiting me unless he sent over an agent in a couple of hours.

''Tell you what, Allen,'' I said the next time he paused to synthesize a sentence, ''I'm not really interested in anything but food at the moment. However, I bet you could make a terrific sale if you'd ring up the Neptune Cove Development Corporation. Be sure, ol' buddy, to ask for Stella.''

If dieting phone solicitors have no better way to occupy their mealtime and are so lonely they must call total strangers, the only charitable thing to do is to introduce them to each other. Besides, that may be the only way the rest of us can progress from soup to dessert in silence.

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