Suburban Soliloquy



British Disconsolate

Vaudeville is alive and well.

Ms Keogh, my more significant other, is celebrating her new freedom. Being the recent recipient of a much needed kidney transplant, she flew home to visit Great Britain for the first time in over twenty years. Before she could go, she needed to renew her British passport.

Ms Keogh, despite having lived in the U.S. since she was a teenager, has never taken U.S. citizenship. She remains the Queen's subject. She's considered it, but at one time the U.S. did not technically allow dual citizenship, and required from her an oath dissociating herself from her homeland. She couldn't bring herself to do it.

According to the application form for renewal, if you have a set date of departure, the British passport renewal is supposed to take ten days. Without a pending departure, it is suppose to take at least four weeks. So Ms Keogh reserved a roundtrip to Heathrow on British Airways. I would not have done it that way, but would have first waited until I had the new passport in hand. Only ever since her transplant, Ms Keogh has been manic, and ever since I've known her, she has planned badly. She makes her plans with an unbridled optimism of how long she "wants" things to take and provides no buffer for intersecting destinies.

Ten days slipped by, then fourteen, then more, and Ms Keogh heard nothing about her passport. She began to panic. Passport services for British Citizens are centralized in Washington DC. She tried to call them, but was greeted with recorded messages that guided her through a labyrinth of options until she learned that all passport telephone inquiries have been outsourced to another company. British passport inquires are now handled by ABTRAN, and she was expected to call a 900 number which would cost $2.10 per minute. She found no way around it. She tried calling other embassy numbers and did reach a recording that said unless it was a "real" emergency, one cannot call them - a real emergency being when you have been caught by the police.

ABTRAN claims to be "specialist in seamless front and back office solutions including customer management, human resources, payment processing and fulfillment."

Ms Keogh decided she must use the 900 number. But she couldn't. 900 numbers, being the ploy of telemarketers, pornographers, and other scoundrels, are blocked by my phone service. We called our phone company to see if we could have it unblocked, if only temporarily. Once again she was greeted with recorded messages that guided her through a labyrinth of options, including being put into queue with a recorded message announcing that there was about a seven minute wait to speak to the next representative. She finally reached a real breathing entity. This real person told her that they cannot unblock 900 numbers.

A moment, please, as we explore this tangential matter of personal interest to me. Both our local and long distance service is handled by AT&T. I work for AT&T. I happen to know 900 numbers can be unblocked. Of course my familiarity with AT&T also means I wasn't surprised by someone giving Ms Keogh the wrong information. It is not untypical. At a later time I called AT&T Customer Service again.

The first time I was disconnected when being transferred to a representative, but I'm used to this. I called back and only had a two minute wait in queue. The agent asked for my name. I told him. Next the agent asked for my telephone number. I told him this, too. "Well, Mr James Wilkinson, how can we help you today?" I explained that I was not Mr James Wilkinson. He disagreed so I had to insist.

Having made convincing argument as to whom I was, I explained to him I just wanted to know if 900 numbers could be unblocked, but that I wasn't planning to have them unblocked. He questioned why I would want to have 900 numbers unblocked? I once more explained that I just wanted to know if they could be unblocked, but that I wasn't planning to do it. He warned me that 900 numbers are used by dubious businesses and pornographers and that AT&T blocked them as a free service (at least in Pennsylvania). I explained, again, that I just wanted to know if they could be unblocked, but that I was NOT planning to have them unblocked. He felt certain they could be unblocked, but then he had to go off to get confirmation from someone who really did know.

"Yes, they can be unblocked. Would you like to have 900 numbers unblock from your service?" I told him no. I asked if there was a fee to have them unblocked. He told me there wasn't. I asked him to double-check. Again he went off somewhere and when he came back he said yes there was, $5.00. He then asked if I was planning to have them unblocked. I told him no. I was finished, but he was not. He tried to sell me on DSL, then tried to convince me to change my internet service provider to AT&T, and finally to join a special long distance program that would save me money by costing me twice what I am paying now. I declined all and eventually I escaped.

Ms Keogh, in her panic was planning for us to drive down to DC to visit the British Embassy in person on the very next Monday. It is a trip of about 170 miles. I listed the various expenses of such a trip, so she decided to try ABTRAN first, because we discovered they had an 800 number you could call, although it required a credit card. Ms Keogh called the number and was on line with them for six minutes, that's $12.60.

What she learned is that they could not give her any status as to her passport renewal. They said that only after the renewal is completed will it appear in their computers. They also said it might take longer than usual because of the season, so many staffers were enjoying their summer vacations. Lastly they warned her that a trip to the embassy would be pointless as they would not see her.

Ms Keogh then called British Airways to see if they could reschedule her flight. She had booked on British Airways because while it wasn't the best price, it was close enough. But then, while booking her ticket, there turned out to be numerous surcharges and service fees. They would not reschedule nor refund the money. If the passport didn't arrive in time, she was just out of luck. I suggested that maybe she could get herself deported.

Her panic was unfounded. Her new passport arrived by FedEx on Sunday. The old blue passport with textured binding had given way to a new red one that is slick. There it was, stamped to the cover, the lion and the (chained) unicorn holding up the escutcheon. What especially excited Ms Keogh was that in addition to reading "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" it also included the "European Union". And she thinks it is because she called ABTRAN and spoke nicely that her passport came in time. "They were holding it up until they could earn some money," she said. An interesting theory, but I suggested, "They just use the 900 number to make money on people panicking. They probably did nothing to speed your passport; it was just coincidence that it came two days later." And I reminded Ms Keogh, do not attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence.

While I compose this essay, Ms Keogh is happily ensconced in Cardiff, Wales visiting with family. She says she is now more convinced that we must definitely go there to live. While British passport renewals cost $185, U.S. passport renewals cost only $67. I ought to start renewing my passport now.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"