The telephone once enabled me to reach out and touch relatives or friends anywhere in the world, or have strangers deliver junk food to the door without leaving home.
My sense of control over my hermitlike existence grew tenfold with the coming of the answering machine. Now, depending on my activity, my mood or the caller's identity, I could even screen the calls of friends and family.
Telephone nirvana arrived, so I thought, with the phone company's Star 69 service, which enabled me to trace and then berate annoying hang-up callers while never moving from my sofa.
I soon came to learn that those who live (or really, avoid living) by the telephone die by the telephone.
My safe, secure world of telephonic isolation was shattered forever one Saturday morning when the phone
rang a few minutes after 9 and a sweet, all-too-energetic female Southern voice dripped: "Hello. Is this Mr. Ranfola? I didn't wake you, did I, sir?" Trained by my parents to be polite to a fault, I awkwardly mumbled: "No problem. I had to get out of bed to answer the telephone anyway."
Mary Beth, the telemarketer from hell, said she had a free magazine subscription reserved just for me if I took a minute to answer a few simple questions. One hour later, after disclosing more information to Mary Beth than most patients relay to psychiatrists in a lifetime, I knew there was no turning back.
Any man, I thought, who can't hang up on a telemarketer was no man at all. Call it paranoia if you will, but from that fateful day an army of telemarketers anticipated my every move and called only when I was eating, showering, watching "Seinfeld" or being intimate with my wife.
Only recently did I learn that a grass-roots anti-telemarketing campaign is marshaling resources across the globe.
One who got mad and then got even is Robert Bulmash -- the Rosa Parks of American anti-telemarketing. He is president and founder of Private Citizen Inc., P.O. Box 233, Naperville, Ill. 60566; (800) CUT-JUNK; firstname.lastname@example.org).
He successfully sued an obnoxious telemarketer and now offers advice on how to use the federal telemarketing law "against telenuisance firms" in his book "So . . . You Want to Sue a Telemarketer: Conquering America's Most Annoying Pest Since the Invention of the House Fly" (Private Citizen Inc., 1995).
Lawsuits against pesky telemarketers, however, are cumbersome, inconvenient and expensive. If your goal is to stop unsolicited calls, the Better Business Bureau suggests that a more practical approach is to write (but not call, because, irony of ironies, they do not like unwanted callers) the Direct Marketing Association.
The DMA is a telemarketing trade association created in 1985 to self-regulate the telemarketing industry and keep consumers from demanding more effective telemarketing laws.
By merely sending his name and phone number to the Direct Marketing Association Telephone Preference Service, P.O. Box 9014, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735-9014, a consumer can have his name and phone number placed on a "do not call" list that is circulated nationwide to telemarketing members of the association.
Having your name placed on a DMA list will drastically reduce the number of junk calls you receive. But as Bulmash reminds us, by adding their names and numbers to the "do not call" list, consumers help the DMA fight any future anti-telemarketing legislation by showing that telemarketers can regulate themselves.
Compliance is also not guaranteed if telemarketers are not members of the DMA.
If avoiding any telemarketers is your desire, the recently invented Phone Butler may be your answer. Available through Morgan-Francis Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., it plays a polite message recorded with a British accent, followed by automatic disconnection.
Placing your name on a "do not call" list, or enlisting the aid of a polite, pseudo-British telephone butler to clean up your American mess, however, is nothing but an act of cowardice and passivity.
And more important, if you no longer receive telemarketing calls, you have lost an opportunity to finally get back at all the telemarketers named Georgette and Billy Bob who called you over the years to ask in a singsong voice if you were the head of the household.
If payback, not solitude, is what you're after, buy Tom Mabe's new CD, "Revenge on the Telemarketers" (Harder Than Normal). It's a comedy disc in which my newest hero, the perverted Mr. Mabe, torments to tears more than 12 actual telemarketers like Todd from Carpet Cleaners, who panics when Mabe screams: "Can you get blood out of carpet? Can you come over right now? . . . I'll pay you cash. The law says someone breaks into your house, it's OK to shoot them. Todd, I need you, man."
Once you are sufficiently inspired (or repulsed) by Mabe, purchase the book "How to Get Rid of a Telemarketer," by Mrs. Millard America (Bad Dog Press, 1996) and get on the hilarious Web site called the Anti-Telemarketer Source (www.izzy.net/~vnestico/t-market.html).
Among the twisted but sometimes hilarious contributions inspired by or found in the book and/or the Anti-Telemarketer Source are the following:
To a credit card solicitor with a special offer, express jubilant disbelief. Interrupt with: "For me? Really? After the bank foreclosed and I maxed out on credit cards and I declared bankruptcy, I never thought I'd get another chance! This is great! Do I need to be employed? I'm out of work, man." (For maximum pleasure, hang up only after an awkward pause from the telemarketer.)
"I'll answer any of your questions if you tell me what color your underwear is. You sound like an Aries. I'll bet you're wearing red underwear, aren't you? Aries like red."
Instead of interrupting the telemarketer, just set the phone down and walk away. If it's a phone company solicitor from AT & T, MCI or Sprint, this is a great opportunity to first yell into the phone with enthusiasm, "That sounds like a great offer!," ask him to hold on and only then walk away.
During the recent political primary, I found the following useful for pollsters: "What kind of sick joke is this? Which one of my neighbors talked to you? You know convicted felons can't vote."
If the caller asks, "Is the woman of the house home?," I have found any variation of the following theme useful. In my deepest masculine voice, I say, "I am the woman of the house" or "What kind of sick joke is this? My wife just left me" or "My wife just died."
The most-used retort for general solicitations, according to Vince Nestico, who created the Anti-Telemarketer Source Web site, is: "I'm sorry, but I'm really busy right now. Why don't you give me your home number and I'll call you back later tonight . . . say midnight. . . . Hello?"
A real credit card number has 16 digits. If asked for your credit card number, give the telemarketer a long string of digits in no way related to any credit card number. Most telemarketers will tediously keep recording digits for up to five minutes.
Irrelevant trivia is sometimes useful: "Did you know beheading was modernized in 1772 with the guillotine? If you call again, would you prefer I use a sword or an ax on your neck?"