Dante dials 911

In a pop-culture version of Dante's Inferno, the entrance to Hades would be a touch-tone phone. Ernestine, Lily Tomlin's lovable operator sadist, would replace Virgil.

Let us call then, you and I, to protest a billing from my cellular-phone company. Come with me as I take that step into answering-machine Hades - "For further options press #1 ... #2 ... #4" until the recording, "Due to unusually heavy demand...." The first level.

I waited 28 minutes until a kind, courteous voice audiblized. Unfortunately, she was not authorized to correct the billing error. I would "need to speak to a supervisor." The second level.

The second call lasted12 minutes on hold. I hung up. I know a no-exit sign when I see one.

I took my phone bill, circled the disputed item, figured out what I thought I should owe, wrote a check, and mailed it. I enclosed a note commenting on the irony of having to post a letter to reach a cell-phone company because it was, in fact, the best way to reach it.

See Tom Reagan's article "I didn't know a real person would answer" (page 14). It's telephone paradiso in New Brunswick, Canada.

A British friend called her long-distance carrier. She made it two levels deeper than my descent, all the way to the level "no one knows the answer."

Traveling both to Egypt and France, she wanted to know the access numbers for phone-card calls back to the States. Someone answered. My friend posed her question. "France...?" echoed back on the line, then the query, "That would be in London?"

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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