The Dumbest Rip-Off
By RUSSELL BAKER
Dear Abbie (Hoffman, that is):
In reading your latest work, "Steal
This Book," I had just gotten to the
directions for cheating the telephone
company when, following your command,
somebody stole the book.
I didn't finish the telephone section
and-careless me!-didn't even think
to make notes. I do not even remember
what size washers you recommended
for dropping into pay telephone coin
slots to simulate the real thing. What
troubles me is something more fundamental.
I wonder if you have really
thought out the implications of the
grand philosophical idea of destroying
the telephone company, which underlies
your discussion of techniques.
I suggest to you that it is simply
not sound, that destroying the telephone
company would, in fact, be a
severe blow to every member of the
In the first place, you must have
noticed, if you have been in England,
France, Italy or Bulgaria, that it is
extremely frustrating trying to get
along in a country with no telephone
system. The English will put up with
that, the French and Italians will put
up with it, and the Bulgarians will
have to put up with it, but you know
as well as I do, Abbie, that an American,
particularly if he is in the counterculture,
needs a telephone the way
a monkey needs a banana.
To the American counter-culturist,
a telephone in the hand is as much a
part of his uniform as denim, dried
lentils and a coiffure from Michelangelo's
If we destroy the telephone company,
who will be the first people to
picket the Pentagon to demand a new
telephone company? The members of
the counter-culture; provided, of
course, they can learn to communicate
with each other without wires. A new
telephone company will inevitably rise
to take the place of the old evil telephone
There is no reason whatever to
assume that the new telepbone company
will be like the old evil telephone
company. There is every reason, on
the contrary, to believe that it will
profit from its predecessor's fatal
errors and do things differently.
For example: Remember last summer
when members of the counter-culture
were telephoning each other
across the continent and charging the
calls to Paul Newman's credit-card
number? Somebody - was it you,
Abbie? - had said that Paul Newman
was so angry with the telephone
company that he had invited everybody
in America to telephone across
the continent, using his credit-card
number, so that when he received the
bill he could show his Irritation with
the telephone company by refusing to
Well. counter-culturist galore
phoned long distance, and the telephone
company did not become angry.
Not at all. It quietly traced each call
back to the telephone of origin, often
rousing some parent from his parental
"Those long-distance calls made
from your telephone, apparently by
your child," said the patient mechanical
voices. "represent fraudulent use
of a credit-card number belonging to
the University of Illinois and not, as
the gullible believed, to Paul Newman."
The crime is punishable by Imprisonment
of up to five years and-"
Well, where breathes there a parent
so vile that he would send his heir to
Leavenworth rather than pay a piffling
$300 to the telephone company?
The present telephone company is
like that. It does not come knocking
at the door with a truncheon and
arrest warrant to haul away members
of the counter-culture. It knows that
money is most easily collected from
people who are soft between the ears.
"Whether your child serves five
years in Leavenworth is entirely up
to you, as a parent. Your telephone
company, sir, does not make threats."
The next telephone company is not
likely to he so indulgent if it has seen
the present one collapse because its
bill collection policy was too softhearted.
The new telephone company
will almost surely put members of the
counter-culture on trial in Chicago for
fraud, possibly before Judge Julius
Can you really believe that the new
telephone company would continue
the present one's practice of saying
"Sure" when somebody dials the
operator in Boston and says, "I want
to make $800 worth of long-distance
calls to the West Coast and have it
all charged to daddy's telephone in
West Orange, N. Y."?
My bet, Abbie, is that they're going
to say, "After seeing how the old
telephone company went broke because
of a bunch of cheating kids, we make
it a policy to call daddy first and ask
if your calls are okay with him."
Is that the kind of telephone company
that counter-culture really wants?
A telephone company that brings
daddy into the system before the calls
are made, instead of presenting him
with an $800 fait accompli thirty days
The present telephone company is
the best of all possible telephone
companies for the counter-culture.
Destroying it would play right into
the hands of Mom and Dad. Think
about it next time before you reach
for one of those washers.