Inside an airless, rundown building, after dutifully going to Window 8, whereupon I was instructed to go to Door No. 5, I stood in a long, wilted line of people, all of whom had gone to Window 8 and received their instructions to proceed to Door No. 5 before I did.
All of us were in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova–a hiccup of a country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania–and were there to register with the police, compulsory for all visitors. Westerners grew restless and impatient, wishing they had brought a book or had their iPod, while East Europeans stood numbly, lobotomized by daily waiting routines that they inherited from their grandparents’ generation under the Soviets.
After a couple of hours, a short game of charades with two officers helped me determine that I needed to go to another police station around the block, where I stood for 2 1/2 hours in an empty hallway, keeping madness at bay by counting ceiling tiles and timing how long it took my gum to lose its flavor (about five minutes).
After Window 8, Door No. 5 and the police station around the block, I was transported to a courthouse, where I walked a narrow hall of doors until I arrived at the double doors at the end of the corridor, which, like the others, was locked. I sat on a hard, backless bench for more than three hours, after which time I was instructed to come back the next day because the judge who granted approval for visits in Moldova was going home.
No one else could help me. It was this specific judge who processed this paperwork and not any other judge.
I returned early the next morning and watched the judge’s assistant come out of the double doors (behind which sat the secretive judge), lock the door, walk down the hallway, unlock a door, enter, exit, lock the door, walk back down the hallway, unlock the double doors again, enter and lock them behind her. This procedure happened five times.
Companion in limbo
A man, nothing but a dot at the far end of the corridor, walked steadily, aligning his feet on the edge of the tattered runner carpet. When he arrived at my end of the corridor, he spun around and went back in the direction from which he came. His runner carpet was my ceiling tiles.
Three more hours I sat on my lonely, little bench.
When I finally stood before the judge, I protested about the wait and was told that I could be deported if I so wished to complain.
This is communism’s legacy. The secrecy and power that the locked doors imply, each employee with a specific task, unable and unwilling to perform any other task than the one assigned. If your job is to answer the blue phone and not the green one, you answer the blue phone.
In Russia, I stayed in a hotel about the size of the Pentagon. On each floor sat a key lady whose job it was to distribute and receive room keys. I once asked her whether I could have a key that fit better and was told it was not her job to give me an additional key.
But after communism fled the East, it crept into the West, riding the coattails of technology, and is now a thriving industry that telephone users know as the automated help line.
Automated lines are everything that a democracy is not. They are oppressive, non-transparent, inefficient, ineffective, cumbersome and morally bankrupt. They offer the illusion of serving the people while serving only the company they represent.
Don’t cross the line
There is no freedom of speech, without risk of being disconnected, silenced. There is no freedom of information–no last names given, no direct lines, not even a location from which they operate is provided or can be verified.
I live in Europe, and recently my U.S.-based e-mail account was inexplicably canceled. I called the hot line and reached Adam in America. Adam told me the database showed a clerical error he did not have the authority to fix. I asked him who did. He said try someone in Europe. Adam answers blue phones, not green ones.
Europe said try someone in America again, so I ended up with Cindy. Let’s just say Cindy and her colleagues are key ladies. She’s in E-mail Setup, not E-mail Account Problems. Cindy apparently didn’t like my tone because she disconnected me multiple times. In effect, she deported me.
Under the Soviet regime, waiting was what someone did, it was an occupation, an exhaustive day’s work.
There is a demeanor among the people in Eastern Europe that is less about patience than it is about absolute surrender of will, because everyone knows that once you get your turn in line, instructions will be given to go somewhere else and wait.
And so it is with automated telephone lines, except we in the West still think that Effort = Results, which in a communist system (be it Soviet-generated or computer-generated) certainly does not.
In this new communism we hang on anxiously to our receiver, thinking this next transfer to this next representative will be the one who empowers us with answers. We do not complain, knowing that retribution equals a dead tone.
There is no letter we can write because there is no transparency, with top management and communist elite both shielded from the plebes.
Without an alternative, we do the only thing we can do: We wait.
Welcome to the 21st Century bread line. Please hold.
Patti McCracken is a freelance writer who lives in Europe.