IThe other day, Nick, my 20 year old, called me in Miami on his cell phone from a crowded sidewalk in Manhattan. “Dad, are you at your computer?”. I knew what was coming next. “Can you check a phone number for me?” You see, I’ve become the occasional telephone directory for my twenty something sons. With a few taps on google or Yahoo, I have what they want; the number, the address, and a street view. Charlie once called me in Miami from the Pacific Coast Highway looking for a hotel room (reasonably priced but not too far from the ocean). I could help him, too.
Which all speaks to the abbreviated life of the telephone directory, reported on the news wire. What’s a “wire”? Never mind. I was never much fond of telephone books. They took up a lot of space. The white pages you could usually fit in a drawer by the telephone. I had a grudge against the yellow pages. Too thick to put both in the same drawer. If you put one in the drawer where the other belonged, and the other where you forgot it… you see where I’m going. Back in the day, if for some reason you weren’t at home when the (only) phone company came by to drop them off, you were stuck with last year’s version unless you went down to the central office God knows where but probably a building that looked like a mausoleum. There was nothing wrong with last year’s version, where you had written crucial information in the margins, or over the blue pages that listed government offices you never looked at once but seemed important enough to someone to put at the front of the book. Every year you lost those notes. Your old girlfriend’s number you had underlined or page ripped out. Then when the new ones came, you had to discard the old ones, heavy enough if you lived in a big city to worry about their edges ripping the garbage bag.
Also, the telephone directory gave you insight, as it did me, how many people are named “Smith”. And how hard it was to find the Smith you wanted, even if you knew the address. In an AP report today, Syracuse pop culture professor Robert Thompson said, “Anybody who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway.” I’m so old I can remember when the ink on the phone book pages rubbed off on your fingers. I’ll bet there are fifty Thompson’s in Syracuse.
Finally, the phone companies were allowed to drop off new directories on your door step, or, in piles in front of office buildings. What was the world coming to? Well the world is coming around to getting rid of phone books altogether which is what I read on the internet version of our local newspaper that I get for free. Remember how the advertisement in the yellow pages used to subsidize the white pages? It always used to bother me that the category “car rentals” wasn’t under “autos”, but listed under “rentals”. What was that all about? Was the decision made by committee? Was there any name that had more entries than “Smith”? So many questions that are so useless today.
I can still remember my childhood telephone number. I remember looking it up in the white pages in my hometown where we were the only family so signified. And how when I went to hotels in bigger cities, there was always reliably a telephone book in the drawer next to the bed (empty, now, even of Bibles) where I could wonder at identical names of others. Now I have more important things to do. Now I can google images and see them all faster than I could look my own name up in a phone book if I had one.
I do not mourn the passing of the telephone directory. These days I am glad my children need me for anything. So I will take their phone calls and do their searches. Not too long ago, when I was in the middle of a very crucial paragraph, I snapped at my youngest, “Go find a phone book.”
“What’s a phone book?” he replied laconically.
On reconsideration, I want to talk to him at any time of day or night. Phone books can go to hell. Unless the internet goes down. Meanwhile, all those printing presses no longer churning out pages from trees? They’re printing dollar bills.
“What’s a dollar bill?” my great grandchildren will ask my children long after I’m gone. I already have their answer, “Once upon a time they were worth a hundred cents.” Now I just need a place to write it down.