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Wall Street's bulls and bears will take the day off on Christmas Eve, but the phones will be busy anyway Friday at the downtown Buffalo office of the brokerage house Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith.

Merrill Lynch will open its long-distance phone lines -- 70 of them -- to the area's senior citizens. They can call anywhere in the world. For free.

"This has been a tradition since 1980 at Merrill Lynch," says branch service manager John Rodriguez. "I did it in Denver, I did it in Cleveland. Now I want to bring the tradition here."

Rodriguez says the phones will be available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Merrill Lynch employees will be on hand to answer questions and, if necessary, help callers operate the phones.

"If there's anyone who wants to call New York City, fine," Rodriguez says. "If someone wants to call Hungary, fine. Three years ago I helped a woman call a relative in a small town in Hungary."

Merrill Lynch, assisted by Wegmans, also will supply coffee and pastries for the callers.

Rodriguez says he hopes to help at least 350 people make calls. If the Christmas Eve program is successful, he would like to expand it to other Merrill Lynch offices in Williamsville and Niagara Falls.

He has been working with Cleta Nunn, a senior citizens volunteer for the City of Buffalo, to spread the word to seniors.

The program means an extra day in the office for Rodriguez and other staffers when they otherwise might be doing last-minute shopping, but Rodriguez says it's an experience he wouldn't miss.

"Getting someone through to a relative they haven't spoken to in 10 or 15 years," he says, "that's Christmas."

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