If you have a complaint about local 411 directory assistance, chances are you are a) lazy and b) gainfully employed. An industrious person simply grabs the phone book. The self-employed are too cheap to pay the 25 cents that the phone company (in my state, Maryland) charges 411 users after they run through the monthly allotment of six.
Well, I am lazy, and a corporate underwriter paid for my directory assistance calls until quite recently. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I dialed 411 whenever I needed a number, even if the directory was literally within arm's length. (My belated apologies to the owners, the Tribune Co. If you're still looking for ways to cut the budget, may I suggest following Reuters' lead? The news agency recently told its employees to give up 411 and use the Internet.)
I began collecting string on 411 misadventures several years ago. It's an anecdotal archive, to be sure, but the problems clearly spiked up in the late '90s, after the local company, C&P Telephone, gave way to Bell Atlantic, which morphed into Verizon.
It's hard to pick a favorite story. A friend's attempt to call Yung's Chinese Carry-Out, which led to a local day-care center, perhaps? But the one that pushed me over the edge from muttering crank to "I-need-to-speak-to-your-supervisor-now" avenger was my request for the number of a health club that was literally next-door.
The operator said there was no Downtown Athletic Club on Baltimore's Centre Street. Had to be, I insisted. It's been there for more than 20 years. Nope. How about Merritt's Downtown Athletic Club, I said. Uh-uh. Frustrated, I kept her on the line, even as I grabbed a phone book and found the number.
"It's in the phone book," I said. "How can you not have the number?"
"We don't have everything in the phone book."
Time to talk to a supervisor. I began: "Where are you?"
"I couldn't possibly tell you where we are," the supervisor said, clearly afraid that I was going to show up on her doorstep.
"I don't want to come there. I just want to know if you're actually in Maryland."