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Don't call me, call deregulation

Somehow I doubt that this is what those great advocates of the free market, George Stigler and Milton Friedman, had in mind. . . . About four weeks ago, after a heavy downpour, my telephone began to act up. It has three buttons and three lines, since I have to take a lot of calls for my wife. The first line developed a heavy static that made it almost impossible to hear callers. The second and third lines had somehow become crossed with the line of a rock-and-roll agent, so that I kept getting his calls. (''Hey, mate, if you want to catch our gig, we'll be on again at midnight and then at 3 - bring the old lady,'' said an English accent on the first night.)

I telephoned the new institutional entity spawned by deregulation, self-gifted with the astonishing name ''Pacific Telesis.'' After I sat all day waiting, a repairman appeared and carefully inspected my telephone equipment. When he noticed that I had a ''three-line selector,'' he sadly shook his head and told me that I needed an entirely different part of Pacific Telesis. ''It's this deregulation, man,'' he said. ''I'm only allowed to handle one-line phones now.''

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After many telephone calls, three days later another repairman arrived. He had no idea why he was there or that another repairman had already appeared. Holding up a giant screwdriver to fend off my dogs, he said that, unfortunately, he could not help me because, under deregulation, customers were required to bring in the broken equipment to a ''phone store'' to get it replaced.

''But I have no idea what's broken,'' I said. ''How can I bring in all of my phones and switches and cables? It took the phone company a week to install it all. I couldn't ever get it back together.''

''Sorry,'' he shrugged, ''but that's the rule under deregulation. I'll try to help, and I'll send out another repairman who knows what part of your system needs replacement.''

Two weeks later, a repairwoman appeared. She also had no idea that anyone else had been there before her. She examined the system and paid particular attention to a chewed-up telephone wire in the living room. ''This is probably your problem,'' she said. ''Replace this wire and you'll be fine.''

''Can you replace it?'' I asked.

''Well, I used to be able to,'' the repairwoman said with a weary sigh. ''But under deregulation, a whole new branch of the company has to replace cables if they're this thick. Or you can bring it in yourself,'' she said.

''But where do I bring it and how do I get it out of the wall?'' I asked.

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''I'm sorry,'' she shrugged. ''Under deregulation, someone else has to tell you how to disassemble your telephone equipment. I'll call somebody for you, though.''

At that point I called the Los Angeles headquarters of Pacific Telesis and asked to speak to the head man. I was disconnected twice and gave up. After another three days, yet another repairman came. He said he had heard I wanted to get some new lines installed because I couldn't get a dial tone (sic). He had no idea that any of the three others had already been there.

''I think I just need a new cord here,'' I said. ''Can you tell me where and how I could get one?''

''Oh,'' he said, ''I'm afraid that, under deregulation, you'll have to pay a minimum of $2 for that cord.''

''Gladly,'' I said. ''But how do I get one?''

''I really don't know that,'' he said. ''Under deregulation, it's all been changed around.''

Just three days ago, a fifth repairman appeared at the house. ''I understand you can't get an outside line,'' he said. He, also, had no idea that anyone had ever been there before.

''No,'' I said. ''I have static and crossed lines.'' By now, I was beginning to realize that static and crossed lines were the motto of the charming new Pacific Telesis.

''You do?'' the fifth repairman asked with great surprise. ''In this new deregulated thing, I can't really tell you what to do. Do you have any lines that work?''

''Yes,'' I said, ''the housekeeper's phone works fine.''

''I'd just use that one,'' he said. ''Under this new deregulation, it's hard to get anything fixed.''

Move over, ''the check's in the mail'' and ''my car broke down.'' The age of deregulation has arrived.

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