Saturday, August 31, 2013

That's me hanging up on ya

Still on the line (2013) Kodakotype

My heart is shattered. My second-longest relationship of, like, ever has broken up. Worse still, it happened by text message. Welcome to the nineties, I told my gut-wrenched self. 

What is the name of this monster so that you can go punch his lights into the next millennium, you ask. Crazy John, or rather the phone company he founded. And, strictly speaking, it’s not Crazy John who’s broken up with me but his rather less pleasant parent who goes by the impersonal name of M. Vodaphone.

What does it say about me that the second-longest relationship of my life has been with a mobile phone? I don’t even want to think about that now. I’m far too depressed. I’ve had to spend the last several weeks interrogating options so that I can have access to emergency services and call my elderly mother once a week. I know that makes me sound hopelessly ancient, but I actually didn’t want a phone with ambitions, nor one that plays me tiny little movies or tells me it's time to go to the dentist. A friend recently got a smart phone and it used up all her credit downloading items it thought she might like to access. I also didn’t want a phone that’s creepily obsequious and tells other people that I'm in a sex shop or a public toilet in Koo Wee Rup. Spontaneity is not something I really want to outsource.

I don’t wish to seem insensitive. I never knew John Ilhan, the eponymous Crazy John. He came, saw, conquered and carked while I was abroad. I didn’t know, for example, that he’d amassed a fortune of $300 million by the age of 40 and that he was already one of Australia’s most generous philanthropists when he died a couple of years later. I didn’t even know that Crazy John was Turkish. I’ve always had a soft spot for Turkish men. In fact, when I stumbled dazed and bewildered into the Crazy John shop in Swanston Street, Melbourne in August 2008, I had no idea that I’d come out with the $79 phone that l would still have five years later and a pre-paid service that would never, ever cause me grief. 

About six weeks ago I'd got the text message warning that my service would end on 31st August. I knew that all of the Crazy John’s stores had closed but I hadn’t really been paying much attention. The message I received when I paid my monthly pre-paid recharge fee by Internet inferred that existing customers would be able to continue receiving the service with the same rates and conditions we’d always enjoyed. The message on the website was sufficiently ambiguous as to warrant confirmation. 

I phoned the pre-programmed customer service number. It occurred to me it might be a hoax. Only days earlier I’d got an email supposedly from NBN Co informing me that my 'service' had been suspended and that I would have to give up my credit card details to get it back on again. I’m guessing the 419ers hadn’t heard that Australia's promised National Broadband Network is not due to amble down the info superhighway that terminates in Larrikin’s End until well into the next millennium. That gives me an eternity to muse on the possibility that I might one day be the grateful recipient of this fabulous ‘fibre to the premise’ that politicians keep talking about. What premise might that be? That there’s a computer somewhere in the vicinity? 

Sadly, it was no hoax. The days when telecommunications never appeared on my list of things to be peeved about felt annoyingly close to being over. I was on a pre-paid, no-contract deal. I just paid up once a month and never thought about it ever again. Believe me, the irony isn’t lost. Never heard of the commitment-phobe who just stays because nothing goes wrong?

The customer service agent on the end of my soon-to-be severed service - let’s call him Mike because I don’t want to get him into any trouble - couldn’t have been more helpful. When he learned that I’d been a customer for five years, he was positively jubilant,

‘Oh’, he said, ‘I’ve never spoken to someone who’s been with us for this long before.’ 

From that moment on, it was like Mike was the long-lost child of Crazy John and this equally crazy woman who changed her phone less often than she changed her underwear. We bonded like, well, Bonds separates. Mike noted that I topped up my phone on a monthly basis with $19 boosts and that I was always ‘hundreds of dollars in credit’. This is as rare as a politician who can construct a cogent sentence, apparently. We need to remember that phone-credit dollars bear absolutely no resemblance to real dollars. They’re like Monopoly dollars except that you can’t buy land with them, only air. Air is difficult to quantify and you only notice it when it runs out.

I know we’re all supposed to be enslaved by our contract culture, but I had found a communications solution that worked very well for me. I’m a generational anomaly. I have no landline, only a mobile phone and a dongle for the laptop. I don’t talk much – well not on the phone anyway – and I want to be able to take my life and work anywhere at any time and at a moment’s notice. There is no advantage to running on empty when it comes to mobile phones. The Crazy John’s pre-paid rolled over any residual credit each month provided the recharge fee of $19 was paid on time. I made sure it was.

Meanwhile, my bonded friend Mike in a call centre far, far away, attempted to help me consider my future options. As customer service calls are on the company’s virtual dollar, I felt no need to rush him. I was already making his day by not complaining. Dum-de-dumming on hold, I already knew that my $19-a-month tariff was history. Mike came back with some helpful instructions about transferring my service to the grouchy parent and then he offered a lovely gesture. He would extend my current credit until 1stSeptember. I responded with appropriate gratitude. I like to think that my next-to-near-relative Mike, so close had we become in this era of all-too-fleeting relationships, took home at least a dinner anecdote from our encounter. And I got to use up all of my squirrelled phone credit calling people who haven't heard from me for ages and are probably still quite baffled. 

Nothing lasts forever. Not a $79 phone, nor a $19 tariff. I get that, but no one likes to be dumped. I admit that I may have taken Crazy John for granted and he may not even deserve it, but I will miss him.

Back to reality. I gave up trying to navigate my options on line and braced myself for an 'in-store' encounter. I chose a large electrical chain and cleverly hit on Monday afternoon after lunch. Mike had warned me that there would be a lot of people transferring their services in the final week and that I shouldn't leave it until the last minute. What I wasn't expecting was to be spending ninety nauseous minutes with a very fat man - let's call him Big Mike - with a very short temper. Big Mike spent most of our time together alternately yelling down the phone at my lovely Crazy John's Mikes in call-centre-far-far-away-land and picking his unfeasibly large nose. I had actually pre-chosen my preferred company and tariff, so I didn't expect complications. I still wanted pre-paid so it's not like I would have to live with a bad choice for more than a month. Old habits.

Drama ignited over the things I wanted to keep. What kind of a world do we live in when someone like me is suddenly a high-water mark for the notion of stability? Now that is scary. Maintaining my phone number was the priority. That operation turned out to be only slightly more difficult than solving Rubik's cube whilst fighting a tiger underwater. With a lot of nose picking and yelling, that karmic milestone was achieved. I really don't think I have it in me to memorise another 10-digit number. 

But I also wanted to keep my phone because it still worked perfectly well. That proved more challenging because the phone was locked. In my best 'old lady' voice, I coaxed a number so long that it must have been previously used to launch a satellite into deep space out of a lovely call-centre-in-far-far-away-land Mike. This number, I was led to believe, would release my phone from bondage. Big Mike, now in serious 'bad cop' mode, was unable to secure its freedom by tapping the number into my phone. He then launched rockets at any number of call-centre Mikes who, fearing for their lives, passed him on to other unsuspecting colleagues in rapid succession. I saw rage that I would like to forget seriously soon, ditto nose-picking. 

Calm was restored when I said I'd buy a new phone. It was either that or die there, in the shop, right then. I calculated that it wasn't worth dying for a phone that had already more than exceeded its life expectancy. My new one is a 'smart' phone but it hasn't tried to outwit me yet. It's not downloading behind my back and it has made fast friends with me by offering to play the radio for me when I'm out shuffling along The Esplanade. Now that is smart. It could be a keeper.