Failures to communicate

Cellphones spell trouble

Michael Madigan, I'm convinced, has survived as long as he has because he treats cellphones like coronavirus.

I wish I could stay six feet away from them, too. When it comes to technology, I'm cursed – laptops go dark on election night, camera batteries die just as Bigfoot appears from behind a tree. My latest misadventure began in August, when I visited faraway parents.

My father, who recently turned 87, was having trouble with his emergency alert medallion – if pressed, it sends a signal to his phone, which summons the fire department. I wasn't much help, so we went to the nearby cellphone store, where Dad goes to get phone stuff figured out.

The store, we discovered, had recently closed. The nearest outlet was across town. Let's switch companies, we thought. The Acme Cellphone Co. has a store close by.

Music from the 80s was playing when we arrived – my father whispered the noise was having unnatural relations with his hearing aid. But the salesman smiled: We'll help Dad with his phone whenever he needs it, he promised.

The salesman said he needed a code number from our current provider. He dialed and handed my phone back to me. The woman on the other end was hard to understand, particularly with Thompson Twins woot-tooting from a speaker device. I walked over and turned it down. The salesman stayed behind the counter and used his phone to turn it back up. The code I eventually got wasn't enough. A second call was needed. Defeated by Cindi Lauper din, I went outside. The salesman got up: Don't stand near the entrance, he instructed: You're setting off a silent alert that a customer might be arriving.

We spent two hours at that store before the salesman told us we were set. An hour later, Dad's phone wouldn't work. Emergency calls only. We returned and told the man behind the counter to cancel, we're going back to the Smith Cellphone Co. Fine, he said. We drove across town to the Smith store, where they allowed us to use the employees-only bathroom while on hold for the Acme Cellphone Co. to provide code numbers so that we could return to the Smith fold.

After four hours at the Smith store, our phones worked. It being dinner time, we celebrated with grilled salmon. But phone woes didn't end.

My mother, 79, also had issues. Frugal and often confused, she had an analog line with no long-distance service. It cost $40 a month, which she declared outrageous. Disconnect, she decided, I won't have a phone at all. I will get a new cellphone, I promised, and give you my old one. When I got back to Springfield, a spanking-new phone was at my doorstep. I went to a Smith Cellphone Co. store and confessed ignorance: Please set up this new phone so I don't screw things up.

The folks at the phone store seemed fascinated by my new Google Pixel 4a phone and asked many questions about it, none of which I could answer: I don't know SIMS from hymns. I explained that my mother would be getting my old phone and added to my account.

When the pros were finished, my photos, contacts, texts and a bunch of other things had vanished. The man behind the counter fiddled with the phones for a few minutes, then wrote down a phone number, which he said would connect me with customer service at Google. Google didn't answer the phone, and I've given up. Pictures of friends and vacations are gone, but a photo of my trusty Rolodex somehow survived. That's rubbing it in.

After writing out directions and snapping photographs to serve as visual aids, I mailed my old phone to my addled mother. Three days later, she called. Those instructions were great, she gushed, as if I were the world's smartest phone tech.

A couple weeks ago, I got a stern letter from the Acme Cellphone Co., demanding $190 for the service my dad and I had canceled 90 minutes after signing up back in August. I called customer service.

We need your six-digit passcode, someone named Niles told me. Passcode? What about the account number on the letter you sent – you're shaking me down, you must know who I am. I provided my address, birth date, Social Security number, pretty much everything except my pant size. Sorry, we can't help without verifying your account, Niles said, and we can't verify without a passcode. I asked what "verify" meant.

While holding for a supervisor, I drove to an Acme store. The salesman there got someone on the phone who apologized and said that she'd made everything right. Can I get an email verifying this? Nope, the woman replied, but the folks at the store can print a document showing that you owe nothing. After we hung up, the man behind the counter said the printer was broken. About that time, Niles – remember him – came back on the phone and said a supervisor was now available.

Mom called when I got home. She kept talking about things she'd read online. Online? You don't have internet service, I pointed out. But I have a phone, she crowed, and things keep showing up on it. I wished her luck.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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