Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sick thoughts

So, I have had a pretty terrible chest-and-head cold since Thursday morning and have been sticking pretty close to home, taking a lot of naps, and not venturing far from home. So it was a comparatively great treat in a relatively dull routine when, on an expedition to the sidewalk mailbox, I discovered that our phone book had been delivered.

It was a pale imitation of the tomes from the glory days of  what we just called The Phone Company. Back then, everybody had two of these - a White Pages for residential listings and the Yellow Pages for commercial listings. Back home in Brooklyn, each was the size of a library dictionary, and even in smaller cities such as Portland and Seattle it was still a sizeable volume. Now it's barely bigger than comic book and hardly thicker than a dime is tall.

I'm not even sure who sent this to me - who these Frontier Communications people are. They're certainly not my mobile phone provider, and I don't have any kind of relationship with any other telecom company. How'd they pick me?

I opened it up and leafed through it to let the memories come fluttering back. It looks the same - tiny printed names in alphabetical order, last name first, first name last. Some with addresses, some without. I recalled looking up the name of a girl I was interested in without having even a quantum of the courage necessary to actually call her; somehow just looking at seven digits printed on the flimsy pages made the possibly more solid.

I wanted to look up someone I knew, but no one I know now has a land line.

Since the edition had the White and Yellow together, I checked on another tradition and was happy to see it survives, if again in a diluted form. Businesses like exterminators and locksmiths always vied to be first in their category listing, figuring that people in dire circumstances needing their services would just call the first number they found in the phone book; I believe there was an AAAAAAAAA All-American Exterminating Service in Portland in 1979; A Allied Exterminators and A A ABCO Locksmiths seem demure in comparison to that brass.

Who's still listing in the Yellow Pages anyway? When I started a small business in 1981, our Yellow Pages listing was critically important. The listing was excruciatingly expensive, but we had to have one - the thought of running a business without a Yellow Pages listing was inconceivable. And timing was critical - the book only came out once a year; opening up shop right after it came out meant eleven months of invisibility. Now, someone using their tablet can build a website complete with e-commerce functions while they are sitting in Starbucks, and sign up for a dozen online directories before finishing their latte. Is the market share of "people who still use the Yellow Pages" vitally important to some businesses?

Well, it's just another dimension to the way things have changed, but one tangentially related to my current reflection on social media. Thinking about the phone book made me think about phone calls: what the sound of  a busy signal was like, how we would make person-to-person calls to a fake name to avoid long-distance charges as we let family members know that we had arrived somewhere safely, how I would call my mother every Sunday because long-distance charges were cheaper on Sundays, and what it was like before answering machines or voicemail to vainly call and call again trying to reach someone.

Communication now is so different and so instantaneous; half a dozen channels can reach me, most of them coming right to my hip pocket. Friends live-blog football games on Twitter or Facebook, sharing their every cheer and groan with the rest of the fans in the city and in the world. We drop clever remarks into other friends' feeds and each Like or RT both confirms our wit and connects us the way only shared humor or subversion can. Is that so bad?

Cast back in the other direction, before phones and phone books and answering machines, back when we lived more on Pastoral Time and less on Industrial Time. Pa would go to town; maybe be'd be back in two days, maybe three; you'd know when you knew. Junior would head cross-country; maybe you'd hear from him in a month, maybe in a year, maybe never again. Communication was slower and more sporadic. Was that better? Was the long-distance call too connected?

Maybe now we're on Information Time and this is just a natural progression. Maybe the feeling some of us have that this is all just too much stems from the same unfamiliarity that caused our parents to shout whenever on a long-distance call. Maybe the silliness that accompanies so much activity on social media stems from the same fascination with the new that made us think for a few years that elaborate, comical answering machines messages were a good idea. Maybe I just need to think about it a bit more.

Now I think I'll put this phone book into the garba -- excuse me, into the recycling.

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