I had a love-hate relationship with my phone in St. Petersburg. The first phone in my apartment — the one I had before it got stolen — was awkward and clunky as a toy. It chirped to itself as feedback within the building overloaded its circuits or when my downstairs neighbors hung up their phone. I came to love its long-distance ring (short-long, short-long) which meant friends from Moscow or even America were calling.
Paying for its services, though, was another story. It was a hassle to read the bills — they were typewritten on newsprint and had an elaborate code system that made verifying them impossible. The phone numbers I dialed didn't even show up on the bills, and the only thing I could make out from it was when I made a phone call to somewhere outside the country.
Telephone bills were paid in person, an embarrassing prospect that involved standing in line with a conspicuous amount of cash and waiting for the inevitable lecture from the woman who marked off my payment in a book. And if the bills were overdue, I had to pay them at the central telephone exchange, which was located in one of the transportation black holes in the city, which meant a long subway ride and a troublesome walk.
The central telephone exchange had a floor full of women in glass cubicles, divided up by telephone prefix. Each woman had a pile of log books. When I brought my bills there, I paid the bills at a cashier's kiosk that had a red curtain like a ticket window in an opera house. I then took the receipt and the bills into the room full of cubicles and found the woman who oversaw my prefix, 395. She marked down my payment in her log book, crossing it out with a yellow highlighter.
The 395 woman seemed happy working there, and would often talk to me as a much older sister might.
"Who are you calling, spending all this money on the telephone?" she would ask. "This much money you could be saving for a plane ticket."
"He is my friend," I'd reply, and she would smirk a little as she tidied the bills and stamped the receipt.
"Friend," she would reply, handing over the receipt. "Some kind of friend!"
It was easy to lose phone bills. They were the size of a playing card and were printed on cheap newsprint and didn't come in envelopes. They got lost in the bottom of my mail slot; I used them as bookmarks, and I often mistook them for scrap paper. Or put them in a pile and forgot about them. Until I added some up one day and found I owed 4 million rubles.
I was appalled. I had no idea what happened to delinquent bill payers and felt bad because my phone number and apartment were in my landlord's name. I didn't know if my lazy habits would go on their record. But I didn't have the 4 million rubles. I didn't even have a million rubles.
More than the reputation of my landlord, I worried about the Telephone Robot. It was an automated phone call that would notify you of your bill issues and announce that your phone would be disconnected in three days. I wasn't sure he really existed — one hears a lot of things in Russia — but I worried anyway.
One Saturday afternoon, I got the call.
"Greetings! This is the Telephone Robot!"
The recorded voice was strong and masculine. I froze as if I was being watched.
The Telephone Robot fiercely described my problem: I had not paid my bills. If I didn't pay them within three days, my phone would be cut off, and I would have to pay extra to have it turned on again. If I had questions, I could call the central telephone exchange. "Thank you for your attention! Good bye!"
It was so ridiculous I stood there holding the receiver in my hand. The Telephone Robot sounds a little like Edward R. Murrow, if Murrow had a mean streak and enjoyed telling people that their services would soon be discontinued. The Robot speaks slowly, so even people like me could understand it. The Telephone Robot is terrifyingly polite in its coldness, and yet a little ridiculous too: it IDENTIFIES ITSELF as a robot, and I think I can hear the voice smiling. And not only that, it uses one of my favorite phrases: Vas bespokoit.
Vas bespokoit is a passive aggressive term. It is very similar to starting off a phone conversation with the phrase, "I'm sorry to bother you, but..." Vas is the accusative for you and bespokoit means bother. But the literal translation is so much more fun: bes is from bez, meaning without, and pokoit comes from pokoi, meaning quiet. The Telephone Robot causes you disquiet, by announcing you're about to lose your phone services.
I ended up borrowing the money to pay the bills in time before the robot cut me off. Four million rubles was about $800, which was more than my month's salary at the time. And while I was better about my bills after that (e-mail, which was becoming more popular by the day, helped), I got into trouble again almost a year later.
I knew the Telephone Robot would call. I hadn't gone to the bill-paying place for awhile, and the receipts were piling up. I worried about the Telephone Robot, and one night dreamed that he came to my apartment rather than just call. But out of poverty and sheer laziness, instead of paying the bill, I wondered how I could delay his vengeance.
One day, while riding on the Metro, it came to me. What if the three-day countdown began only if the robot completed the call? If you didn't answer the phone, and didn't get the notification, where did that leave him? What if I never answered my phone again? I conspired with my friends: If they were trying to call me, they were to let the phone ring once, hang up, and then call back, so I could be sure it was them.
It worked well. Sometimes my phone would ring for five minutes, and I could picture the Telephone Robot on the other end, tapping his fingers, slightly put out. I couldn't be sure it was him calling — Russians like to let the phone ring for a long time, and thus bully you into answering — but really, who else would it be? I congratulated myself on my ingenuity, my very Russian way of thinking. Weeks went by with my friends putting up with the silly dial-hang-up-dial routine, or calling at exact times, and I dodged the robot.
One day, when I was cleaning the apartment, the phone gave a long-distance ring. I wasn't expecting a call from America. I picked up the receiver.
There was a click and a small whir — a half-second of almost silence in which I instantly realized my betrayal.
"Zdradstvuitye! Vas bespokoit Telefonny Robot!"
I nearly staggered under the weight of the injustice of it all, horrified. He can't use a long-distance ring! He can't! Long-distance rings that aren't long distance should be illegal when calling expats. This was so far out of bounds I swore at him in Russian and English as he named the terms.
He hung up. I had three days.