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10-10-220, My Ass!

By Jeff Smith

MARCH 8, 1999:  I'VE BEEN HAD. Much as it pains me to admit it, I trusted Dennis Miller and the sonofabitch let me down.

Dennis Miller, you may be aware, is that excruciatingly hip, cynical smart-ass late of the Saturday Night Live crew. One of the last such ensembles to actually be funny. Miller used to do the fake news and ridicule everybody. He was Craig Kilborn's mentor for the first iteration of The Daily Show. If none of this rings any bells with you I am sorry: there is an entry level standard of hip, below which you should not attempt to parse this column. Try The Skinny or the personals instead.

Anyway, since Miller left SNL he's been cashing in on his reputation for hipness and sneering sarcasm by shilling for commercial goods and services that rise to his precious standard of integrity and social cachet. Or so the demographers who run the engines of commerce would have us believe. I am more inclined to the opinion that Miller and celebrity endorsers of his ilk gravitate toward the Benjamins. Call me cynical, but one has to wonder why a reputation as an arrogant wise-ass establishes one in the public consciousness as believable and trustworthy.

Be that as it may, Miller (and Christopher Lloyd, who is cast in the common consciousness as the drug-addled cabbie, Jim Ignatowski, from the old Taxi series) is the television spokesman for one of the many extra-digit long-distance dialing scams. And an effective scam it is.

It hooked me, and I have for close to half a century boasted long and loud that "I'm not as dumb as I look." I picked that up from my dear old Dad, who used to assure me it was true. (He invariably added, after I thanked him for the flattery, that I couldn't be as dumb as I looked: it would defy credulity. You must ask me sometime about a little project of mine I call The Law of Sensory Consonance. But that's another story for another time.)

Apparently I am precisely as dumb as I look, because after years of resisting the most determined efforts by companies such as MCI and Sprint and 10-10-321, I watched and listened to Dennis Miller's simple and direct pitch for this 10-10-220 long-distance phone service, and I bought it.

It was such a welcome relief from that 10-10-321 horseshit. I mean who really believes that John Lithgow shoots baskets in his driveway with his fruity African-American neighbor? Who believes that in the unlikely event that Lithgow lives in an integrated neighborhood, where the residents have hoops nailed to their garage roofs, where the men play horse in their free time, that their male-bonding time is spent waxing horny over the chump-change they save punching in seven extra digits every time they make a long-distance call? Not I.

But put an asshole like Miller in a half-way believable scenario, and have him tell you that you can call anywhere in the country, any time of the day, any day of the week, and talk for up to 20 minutes for just 99 cents--simple as that--and you'd fall for it too, right? That's just a nickel a minute.

I checked the rate against what it costs me to call Tucson or Flagstaff from here at home in rural Santa Cruz County (like, 50 cents a minute on old US Worst) and decided my fingers could stand to do a little walking. Miller gave me none of this "and up to half off on calls over 20 minutes, and just 43 cents on nights with a full moon, and 12 percent less to unmarried second cousins." Just a plain old nickel a minute for a 20-minute long-distance chat.

As a man who admires Occam and his razor, I could relate to such minimalist elegance. I even touted the plan to my buddy Jones in Flagstaff and to my kids in Tucson. And limbered up my nose-picking finger to make it practically automatic to punch 10-10-220 every time I called Tucson to harass Liza and Caleb. Boy, was I piling up the savings.

Boy am I dumb.

I got my phone bill last week and there was a new page in it from an outfit I never heard of. Something called Telecom USA. Turns out these are the 10-10-220 people. Well, I figured they had to be somebody. 1-800-Collect turned out to be MCI, I learned long ago to my shock and surprise. Most of these extra-digit hustles are the red-headed stepchildren of major players in the long-distance game. They like to keep their identify secret because they know they already have pissed off most of the market with their constant barrage of telemarketing, tying up hours running into weeks, into months, into years of our time, trying to con us into switching to their service to save a few dimes during off-peak calling hours.

Anyway, the page from Telecom USA was mercifully short. It covered just the first day of my foxhole conversion to the faith of 10-10-220. Next month's bill will tally almost an entire page of the calendar, bruising the delicate tip of my index finger on those seven extra buttons, preceding each attempted call to anywhere outside of rifle shot from my house.

My first day as a 10-10-220 convert included four phone calls to Tucson and one to Butte, Montana. The call to Butte lasted 24 minutes and only cost me $1.39. Just like Dennis Miller told me it would. Such a deal. And the four calls to Tucson? Well as luck would have it, each of them was a call to an empty house. Nobody home. Except the answering machine. A couple of times I left 10 second messages, but the other two attempts to the same places, I just hung up after the machine answered.

Didn't matter though: 10-10-220 charges me 99 cents for every one of those nobody homes.

And I know that my next phone bill is going to have a much longer page of itemized billings from Telecom USA--perhaps even two or three pages. And those pages are going to include a shitload of nobody homes, plus a preponderance of quick chats with the boss at The Weekly to say my column will be a day late, if not a dollar short (30-second call), or with one of my children to say I'll be by to pick you up for tacos at 5:30 (a minute, max), and five minutes or less to this, that and the other.

And every one of those conversations, non-conversations, brief monologues and answering machine messages is going to cost me just one penny shy of a dollar. Not a nickel a minute, as implied by Dennis Miller and his evil slave-masters at Telecom USA. Not even the exorbitant four bits a minute as often charged to call a mere 50 miles for a mere minute by your regular old Ma Bell phone company.

Oh hell no. We're talking something on the order of a dollar a second here.

I quit. I will never use anything but the Mother Bell I grew up with, even if she does charge me an arm and a leg and a first-born son. Eventually we'll all be on cell phones beamed via satellite, and long-distance will cost no more than local calls. Which is as it should be.

Of course it's all going to cost like your mortgage every month, but we, the consuming public, will love it because it will fool us into thinking we're getting free long-distance. And at least we won't have to watch John Lithgow and his home-boy gush over their phone bills anymore. Or interrupt supper to listen to some telemarketer from MCI.

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