Greed had my number — a 1-800 toll-free one

Every day, the seven deadly sins lead me toward unhappiness.

The dark side. Life noir.

Of the seven, I plead guilty to wrath and lust — getting very snotty when being dismissed by attractive women.

But my costliest sin — please, bear witness as I enter the confessional – has been greed.

And here’s the evidence: In 1969, as I was reviving a mom-and-pop drugstore from imminent failure, business began an upward tangent. I had visited physician offices during my few off hours, and I learned that many of them offices resisted calling any pharmacy.

In those days, phone-in prescriptions carried a 25-cent charge – at a time when doctors were getting just $5 for an office visit.

A popular Niles doctor, John Bruni, complained that prescription calls to us had cost him $1.75 in a single month. At the time, $1.75 was equal to two Big Macs and a supersize order of fries.

I realized I could save him that money and bring in more business if I had a 1-800 toll-free line from ATT. Offered a choice of numbers, I chose 1-800-439-2466. Why? Because the last seven digits spelled HEXAGON. 

Readers might recognize that as the six-sided benzene ring, core of all organic chemistry, the pride of pharmacy students and vegetarians.

What could be better, easy to advertise and remember? For a failed English major, I felt quite clever. Plus, I had turned down 800-244-5375, which translated to (800) BIGJERK.

It worked. That toll-free line started ringing, sometimes off-the-hook. Yes, I heard from regional medical offices galore, but often insurance salesmen, stockbrokers, sweepstakes purveyors, roofers, siders, and the sheriff’s auxiliary extorting donations — or else.

Guilt by benevolence must be in the Bible. Somewhere.

Possessing a 1-800 number quickly became the fashion – and the available numbers began to diminish, so their value increased. (Historical footnote: prefixes 888, 877, 866, 855, 844, 833 had not yet been imagined.) 

Now we were the cat’s meow. In today’s lingo, the cutting edge. 

vanity plate in the world of commerce.

Then, a call came Oct. 21, during the first Reagan administration. It was a Wednesday, late, after closing.

Hello, I’m Bill, calling from Cleveland OH, are you the owner?

“Uh, yes.”

“Just a chat. I’m president of Hexagon Industries, manufacturer of hex bolts. I’m intrigued by your telephone number, as it could really benefit our business. Would you be willing to relinquish 439-2466?”

“Umm, hem, uh haw, it’s really quite an asset. We’ve spent years promoting it, at great personal cost, $8 a month, effort, huge effort, yada yada, priceless, yada, blah, blah.”

“I fully understand but if, say, $5,000 is enough to change your mind, could you call me back?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure, but not likely… Thanks for calling.”

That night, my first wife’s 39th birthday, I hadn’t even brought home an outdated Whitman Sampler.

Money was tight. But greedy me, I’m walking on air. I’ve got this chump by the testicles … If he’d offer a lousy $5K, why not $10K?

Let him hang in the wind, like a palm tree swaying in a typhoon, wait a year or two, glued to his phone, anticipating a positive response from this pharmacist, self-supposed pillar in his community, a member of the most trusted profession

Ahaaa! Not a chance, I’ll go for the gullet, $10K or no dice.

Greed, like all sins, invites hindsight. It taught me that class and humility mean far more than money or possession. Class would have been to offer the number, for nothing, an extension of goodwill, and invite him to visit South Bend if he ever headed west.

That would be a remembrance, forever, and I wouldn’t be writing this column.

I did call, a year later, and he was delighted. Good news. The government antitrust case against ATT was moving forward and he was offered the same number, at no charge, with an (888) prefix. 

“My sincere thanks that you didn’t take the bait,” Bill said.

It was too late to turn a wrong into a right. I’ve regretted it ever since.

My ex, a lovely woman, remarried. Her second husband, much better than the first – an 888 prefix to my mere 800.

Stay tuned. It gets worse.

Out of curiosity tonight, I dialed that old number (800) Hexagon.

A recording asked if I was over 50 — press 1 for yes, or 2 for no.

I pressed 2. Add lying to my list of sins. But guess what … it’s not one of the deadly seven. You have me on lust, wrath, greed and vanity, with a misdemeanor in lying, but as far as you know, I can acquit on gluttony, sloth and envy.

But before you jurors vote, I may have more stories to tell.