San Francisco, 1981: Every year, to the office of Network Answering Service in the big corner flat on the second story above Geary Boulevard, came Mark Bell, the Pacific Bell Directory salesman. And yes, his name really was Mark Bell.
This was back before Pacific Bell splintered into forty or fifty companies so as to serve you better and save you so much money which is why your phone bill is so much lower these days. This was back before Pacific Bell changed personnel every fifteen minutes. In fact, the same guy came every year. Mark Bell.
He was accustomed to my odd phone book listings.
The first year I opened the answering service, 1976, I didn’t know which name would work the best, so I put five different business names under answering bureaus, to see which one people would call.
Getting the names had been easy. I’d hauled a pony keg of beer up the stairs to my third-floor studio apartment, invited Richard W. and Phil Groves and about thirty other people, and that evening we drank beer and thought up names for answering services. A lot of these names were real stupid.
But I’d settled on five — A Budget Answering Service, Network Answering Service, Sundial, Western Eclectic, and Xanadu Answering Service. As it turned out, people called “A Budget” the most, probably because it came first in the list, but that sounded too cheap so we mainly used the Network Answering Service name.
We did put up posters around town picturing a duck and saying A Budget Answering Service, with little yellow take-one cards. Little yellow ducky cards continued to surface for many years after the posters. People would call to sign up. We’d ask them how they heard of us. “I’ve got this little yellow card with a duck,” they’d say.
After the first year, in the yellow pages we dropped the names except A Budget and Network, but this year I had a new idea, so I gave Mark Bell an additional name.
“It should say Third Ear Telepathic Answering Service,” I told Mark, “and with an extra line that says: We use no phones.”
Mark Bell didn’t even blink; he just filled out the form. “And what phone number do you want to list?” he asked.
“None,” I said, “It won’t have a phone number at all.”
He stopped, raised his head to stare. “I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s got to have a phone number.”
“Why?” I demanded.
“Because it’s a phone book!”
Hmmm. He had me there. That was a stumper. So I fetched from our records an unused number, and gave it to him.
In September, the phone book came out, and there under Answering Bureaus was Third Ear Telepathic Answering Service. We use no phones. 221-3333.
On that line, I installed a message-only answering machine, and every few weeks I’d change the recording. The phone was apparently answered by Ruru the Guru, who lived in a Himalaya Hideaway, and from the astral plane provided telepathic answering service as a free public service for anybody who wished to send or receive a telepathic message.
We don’t have any real statistics on how much the telepathic answering service was actually used. I mean, just given all the daily work, it’s just so hard to keep accurate statistics, you know?