This is a story by Peter Betts: The 'Pat' he refers to is me.
A Brit’ & a Half Lost in OC by Peter Betts
On a journey of discovery, memories and comparisons
Every Assistance Short of Help
It’s a miracle I haven’t thrown the phone out of the window, precious lifeline that it is.
Technology is wearing down my defenses. “Tried to call you, Pete. You forgot to put your Voice
Mail on again,” David complained. “Don’t you ever look at your Missed Calls?” Pat accused.
She’d called me to pick her up and where was I? I wish her six-year old grandson were here to
explain the mysteries of modern-day cell phones. I’m just getting the hang of American land
lines. Although I’ve finally mastered the act of punching in the number and remembering
to push TALK, invariably I have to jam the phone to my ear in a futile attempt to translate
the far-away voice of an operator who sounds like he’s in Uzbekistan and who’s speaking on
some muffled headphone when all I’m trying to do is call an office in downtown L.A. After
several “Can you repeat that more slowly” or “more loudly” or both at once, I’m switched to
dead silence as I wait for Customer Care or Customer Service to vent my complaint. Am I
still connected? To whom and to where?
In the UK I got an earful of music while the operator put me on hold - Pop, Rap or
Classic don’t take your choice but they never played mine - Jazz. Here in America it seems
to be plain silence and silence isn’t golden unless we’re talking about the cost of the bill I’m
running up on my temporary pay-as-you-go cell. But the cheery, “Thank you for choosing dedah-
di-dah-di-dah” doesn’t cheer me when I wouldn’t call them if I could help it.
Back in Blighty, a colorful multitude of phone cards pasted inside local corner shop
windows obscuring the view offered passersby the opportunity to call Norway for as little as
21p or Ghana for 39p. They were guaranteed to save on British Telecom’s exorbitant rate on
phone calls but I never had anyone in either country that I felt I needed to speak to. Until
one day here in OC’s lovely Laguna Niguel, Pat needed to connect with the ‘outside world’.
She’d chosen to buy an item advertised on the Internet from a far off land. Emails shot from
here to China and back.
How did they wish to be paid for this possibly nefarious transaction for an item we
might never see? The Chinese person with the un-Chinese name of Nerissa emailed ‘Pay
only by Western Union.’ Didn’t even know they still had one. Thought it went out with the
The phone number was found in the telephone book. Pat dialed. She had the name of
the payee. She had the amount due. All she wanted was a living human; even Wall-E would
have done. But the automated phone clicked in and she was talking to an electronic voice
that required answers: a distinct yes or no and no room for maybes. Finally, a human being
of unknown origin deigned to listen while she explained what she wanted to pay to whom and
why. She even gave her life story in an effort to get the purchase moving. When finally she
gave her credit card number she was told the transaction was confirmed and it would cost
“Forty dollars? Why didn’t you tell me that at the beginning?” she moaned. The
Western Union voice explained that in this part of Orange County there were three
possibilities but a personal visit to Dana Point, the nearest point of call, would only cost $14.
Worth the trip.
WHAT A GREAT DEAL! IT’S EVEN WORTH
CALLING SOMEONE WE DON’T KNOW.
I SEE YOU CAN CALL
TIMBUCKTU FOR JUST
19P A MINUTE.
Nostalically, we imagined Western Union to have a formidable building like the Post
Office with Stars and Stripes flying, so reaching the destination it was a surprise when the
address seemed to refer to a less-than-super market. The Mexican eating a tamale outside
thumbed the way inside. Taking a chance we stepped past him and went in.
From the smell of chili, the store was clearly catering to a Mexican clientele. “Western
Union?” Pat asked the man behind the till. The shopkeeper pointed with his free hand to the
back of the store.
And there it was, just behind the bananas. No sign. Nada. Only a Mexican girl in
a little cubicle behind a window, fronted by a desk for the customer. Pat’s transaction was
sandwiched between a girl sending money back to her family in Mexico and an elderly woman
with a bag of japaleno peppers in her hand, surprised at our presence.
But all was not smooth sailing. Pat’s attempt to send the money hit another snag.
Having carefully completed the lengthy green-headed form she handed over her debit card.
“Sorry, Señora, we only accept cash.” We had ten dollars between us. “There’s an ATM
around the corner,” the teller advised, with a look of disdain.
“Don’t trash that form!’ Pat glared at her. “We’ll be back.” So another short walk,
another bout of too many fingers as we attempted to extract dollar bills from an unfriendly
machine by not pushing the right buttons. Equipped with sufficient funds we returned to the
Western Union office secreted in a Mexican Supermarket and concluded the transaction to
As we headed back to our rented apartment, I marveled at the tenacity of the human
race. Those adventurous souls who set forth to another land always ready to send some of
their hard-earned bucks to their families back home and I wondered which of our family
might be needy? Was it us?