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The Amazing World Beyond Your Phone

Times Staff Writer

Aphids on your ivy? Bill collectors on your doorstep? A bit befuddled by your tarot cards? Help is as close as your telephone.

L.A.'s The Place, after all, where you can arrange anything from a psychic reading to an eviction notice at the touch of an 800 number or a Southern California area code. Not to mention a free consultation with a private eye or a rundown on how the big-eye albacore are biting (both of those are available 24 hours).

Don’t hang up . . .

The future is now at AT&T.; Video teleconferencing, at about $700 an hour coast-to-coast in prime business time, is saving busy executives from jet lag and, as AT&T; district manager Peter DeTagyos put it, “having to miss their child being the giant squash in the fourth grade harvest festival.”

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And there have been other benefits that could not have been predicted. “The Japanese business community went wild” when the technology came to Tokyo, DeTagyos said.

He pointed to studies in this country showing that participants in a video teleconferencing session are less intimidated, less reluctant to express their views or to change their minds than they are when seated across a conference table from the chairman of the board.

Perhaps only 100 U.S. homes now have videophones, he said, but he predicted that within 15 years, these devices will be priced down to the home market.

The Phone as an Intelligent Terminal

That’s not all. “In the future,” he said, “the phone is going to become an intelligent terminal. Your telephone system will turn on your heat, your alarm system, control your access to your personal computer . . . and very soon you’ll be able to call a distributor and say, ‘I’d like to see “Fantasia” at 8 o’clock (on the VCR).’ You’ll also be able to call and say, ‘I would really love to hear Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring done by the London Symphony with (Andre) Previn conducting, the one they did in 1962' and have that downloaded to your stereo system.”

New from AT&T; is a security system, a wireless box that sits in a closet and, in time of emergency, automatically seizes control of your telephone line and calls the appropriate agency for help.

DeTagyos explained, “Say you’ve parked your car in your driveway and someone sticks a gun in your back,” demanding that you disconnect your home alarm. If the victim punches the authorization code in backwards, the system will give all appearances of having been turned off but, in fact, it will have alerted the police to come--and without sirens.

Cellular telephones for automobiles are proliferating like mini malls in Southern California but an answering machine in the family BMW is not really practical (the heat would melt the tape). Now it is possible to pick up messages on one’s car phone through a super-sensitive new answering machine at home. When leaving the car, the driver simply forwards the calls to his home machine; when he returns to his car, he calls home and picks them up.

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The picture phone, introduced with much ballyhoo by AT&T; at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, is no longer manufactured by the company (the machines are available from other manufacturers). “Everybody went ga-ga over it” at first, DeTagyos explained, but it turned out that “although they were fascinated by it, not too many people really wanted it. We put it on the shelf as an idea that was well ahead of its time.”

Even though the units were equipped with an on-off switch, he said people were reluctant to relinquish the privacy the old-fashioned telephone afforded them; they wanted to be able to laugh, frown or grimace without being seen. But stand by, DeTagyos said, “It’s going to make a comeback.”

Is a deadbeat tenant refusing to move out? A number of eviction services are as close as your Touch-Tone. “We do a lot of them without anyone coming into the office,” said Bruce Gendron at Landlord Legal Services (213) 877-3311. Gendron, speaking on one of the service’s 15 phone lines, explained that a phone call to Legal will get your tenant served with a three-day notice to pay up or get out. The billing, typically $215, can be handled by mail.

At the end of 1-(800)-DENTIST, a friendly voice assures the caller that this is “the most important call your mouth can make.” The Santa Monica-based service, ready to refer to 80 member dentists in L.A. and Orange counties, is “targeted toward the procrastinating person,” explained receptionist Jody Lacio.

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Before inviting a dentist to join, said co-owner Gary Saint Denis, “We check to see if they’ve ever been sued for malpractice or brought up for peer review.” He believes it’s an idea whose time has come: “There isn’t the family structure, the neighborhood structure anymore. People look in the Yellow Pages and there are 30 pages of dentists.”

The Virgin Mary’s Message

Wondering about those billboards around town announcing that the Virgin Mary has an urgent message for America? A call to the number on the billboard, (213) 888-1111, will get you an answering service for “Our Lady’s Workers,” who will send out a brochure and a free rosary.

“Looking for Jesus?” asks an ad in the Yellow Pages, suggesting a call to (213) 299-8415. A woman answers, explaining she is a member of the First Church of God in Inglewood and that the church provides this 24-hour service for anyone “who wants someone to pray for them or with them.” Today, she said, people have “all kinds of things pressing on their hearts.”

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Bogged down with bills? Give (213) NO-BILLS a jingle any time of day or night and you will hear the cheerful recorded voice of attorney Hugh Slate of Slate & Leoni: “Hello. Are bill collectors phoning you at your work? Are bill collectors phoning you at your home? . . . " Free brochure and telephone consultation available.

Those who have mastered the art of urban survival know that 911 on their telephone will bring fire, police or paramedics. And that a call to their bank’s home banking hot line can get them check-free bill paying. Well, almost check-free.

Here’s how it works, for example, at Security Pacific Bank: A customer with a checking account calls (800) 426-9856 to sign up for the service, for which there is an all-inclusive surcharge of $4.50 a month. The customer provides the bank with a list of merchants and others to whom he regularly writes checks and, in about five days, the customer will receive a merchant list (96 entries permitted) with a code number for each.

When it comes time to pay bills, the customer either calls the above number, where a teller--a real human teller--answers and takes the code numbers of the merchants to be paid or, the customer calls (800) 426-9857, where a computer answers and directs him or her to punch in the merchant code numbers. Payments out of the customer’s checking account are made the following day. “First, we have to see if the money is there,” a spokeswoman said.

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A Free Surveillance Consultation

Detectives Inc., at (800) 858-5688, is one of the agencies offering surveillance services around the clock--telephone consultations free. In a single call, said vice president Jeffrey Strunk, “you could explain your particular problem and I could give you an estimate, probabilities of success, tactics, etc.”

But the spy work wouldn’t begin until the check has cleared and, Strunk said, “We wouldn’t walk out the door for less than $500, all cash or check.”

The agency specializes in domestic cases--child abductions, spouses absconding with community property, someone barred from her own home. It’s a far cry from the high drama of TV, where the private eye is apt to be a roguish fellow who puts himself above the law, Strunk emphasized--"We’re a pretty straight bunch.”

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Leon Kaplan is the car man, dishing up on-the-air advice about clogged carburetors and such Sundays at 8 a.m. to those who call KABC radio at (213) 520-8255. Kaplan flies airplanes and races boats, cars and motorcycles. “I think like a car,” he says. “When somebody calls me on the air (with auto woes), I see myself right inside that engine, see all those parts moving around. When I sit at the microphone, I don’t have any books in front of me.”

Typically, Kaplan said, he gets more calls in the first hour of his three-hour radio program than he can handle in the three hours. His explanation: “In California, our cars are our claim to fame.”

Callers want to know what car to keep, what car to buy, whether to invest money in an older car. He says, “I’ve never known anybody to wear a car out. When people want a new car, they make excuses to buy it.”

Give your car 15 minutes a month and it will give you thousands of hours of enjoyment.”

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On the taped message at (213) 976-LIST, the “largest telephone introduction network in America,” Gary, single, 21 and independent, is “looking for a fun girl.” Jim wants a good woman who’s looking for a good man. And Robin, a 43-year-old blue-eyed blonde, tells callers, “I’m as surprised as you are that I’m doing this.” She explains that she hopes to meet a sports-minded man 35-45 and “not too overweight.”

Later, contacted at the telephone number she had made available on tape to anyone with $2 for a 976 call, Robin explained, “I’ve just gone through a divorce. And the barroom scene, I can’t go back to that. . . . there’s AIDS, this, that and the other.”

Although she said she expected to meet only “losers, real obscene types,” the men who had called her had been, for the most part, just “lonely guys” who’d recently been dumped. Among them had been a painter, a musician and a 25-year-old from Vandenberg Air Force Base who “likes older women.”

No, she had never called any of the Garys or Jims. And she has her own ground rules for men who call her--"You meet in a public place.” Please don’t use her last name, Robin asked--"My friends would freak out.”

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At (213) 976-TUNA, a lilting male voice has good news--the yellowtail have “really cranked up” and the fishing is fine for bonito, calico bass and rockfish. The voice also serves up hints on hook types and baits, together with a rundown of which charter boats caught what that day.

For five years, Lili Singer, a horticultural consultant, has been the plant lady, offering advice to green-thumbers who call into the Garden Show on KCRW at 12:30 p.m. each Friday (213) 450-3520. She hears the same complaints again and again--"The biggest problem is overwatering, or watering incorrectly.” She reminds listeners, “Plants can’t swim.”

By instinct Singer knows that, if pests on an indoor plant are the problem, “It’s likely it’s mealybugs.” She’ll ask, “Is it really moving? Are there cottony deposits?"--which gives away mealybugs. Like the car doctor, she needs no reference books in front of her. “You get to know what happens in certain seasons,” she explained.

Plants, like clothing, go in and out of vogue. Right now, Singer said, “Everybody’s into English gardens, the cottage look. Unfortunately, many of these (plants) are not suited to our climate.” Cool colors, pinks, blues and whites are in, while the oranges and yellows are not. Cacti continue big while deciduous trees have dipped in popularity. Singer says, “People tend to be a little impatient.”

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A call to Merlin’s Prophecy, “psychic of the chic,” at (213) 876-4468 is answered by Shania (nee Susan) Light, who works with Egyptian tarot cards, offers telephone readings by appointment to those whose minds have not been muddled by prior readings and who are willing to pay up front and to first spend a week “jotting down things they want to look into.”

Light is not interested in those with “unrealistic” expectations of instant answers, to wit: “Will I win the lottery on the 26th, which is Saturday, so I can get my rent in on the first, and if that doesn’t work, can I move into a new apartment by the 10th of October?”

She does not deal in crystal balls, explaining that she makes none of the “bizarre claims” that appear in newspaper ads placed by people who go in for shooting stars and gypsy headdresses. With a degree in philosophy and a background in poetry therapy, Light urges clients to “get in touch with your feelings. If something isn’t bringing you pleasure, profit or knowledge, I strongly suggest you get it out of your life.”

Psychic readings by telephone make sense in a city like Los Angeles, Light said--"Women don’t have to worry about their hair, their makeup or driving at night. And nobody has to worry about directions or parking.”

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