In the Book
An ode to telephone directories.
What will kids born today ever know of phone books? Perhaps the loss I feel most keenly at 63—pondering artifacts that fall prey to our evolving technology—is the disappearance of our public phone directories. These would include both the residential “white” as well as the business “yellow” pages and specifically that of the Manhattan borough edition, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of this now-extinct breed, by virtue of its size.
As stacked and overpopulated as the city around us, as tall as our skyscrapers, the phone book was like a dictionary for a special language in which the words were all my fellow New Yorkers. It was the one place where the names of the nameless hordes were to be found.
With pages providing emergency hotlines, maps for postal ZIP codes and area codes, as well as listings for government offices, the phone book became our ultimate kit for urban living.
The phone book was like a dictionary for a special language in which the words were all my fellow New Yorkers. It was the one place where the names of the nameless hordes were to be found.
A hulking brick of pages, barely contained by its own spine, the brimming directory was a surprisingly versatile household item. Upon arrival it became a high chair, door jamb, seat cushion, step ladder, and even, under the right circumstances, a drummer’s practice pad. The muted thump of a pair of drumsticks trilling their flams and paradiddles was perfectly suited to the unplugged apartment band rehearsals of my youth, as no undiscovered musician paying a Manhattan rent could afford a sound studio.
And should our little ensemble happen to include a golden-throated chanteuse, then it could be said that he or she “might as well sing the phone book and you would still want to listen.” Back in the day, these references were ubiquitous. On a deli plate, an oversized pastrami sandwich was “like eating the phone book.” In the classroom a granular lecture was “like hearing someone recite the phone book.” I could go on and on but I wouldn’t want you to feel like you were “reading the phone book.”
Yet the annual arrival of these tomes was exciting. Once a year the latest editions of the phone book would appear in our building’s lobby like a stack of Christmas presents. In the yellow pages we were encouraged to “let your fingers do the walking” and there would be a nifty logo of a hand doing just that.
“The new phone books are here!” crowed Steve Martin in his classic comedy, The Jerk. His character was intent on tracking down the femme fatale who had eluded him. We were no different from the Jerk himself with our own moronic pursuits and rituals attached to this event. As kids, each year my friends and I would eagerly check to see if anyone was listed under the name of Richard Head or Richard Face. “Dickhead!” You get it?
And I’m ashamed to say that we actually placed prank calls to some of the zanier names we discovered. In later years, being older, though not necessarily wiser, I would feverishly look up old boyfriends to see if they were still my neighbors in the big city, still listed behind the same doors I’d once slammed behind me. And finally, of course, you’d have to look up yourself to make sure you still existed.
Telephones themselves have certainly changed since my days of prank calls and stalking boyfriends. Today on our little screens we swipe and text, yet what could possibly replace the alliterative poignancy of being warned never to “drink and dial,” as one friend admonishes the other in the off-beat drama Sideways? “Don’t hang up!” we still implore, even if there is no actual receiver to bring down. In our contemporary language, literature, and even film, the old phones, phone books, and their vernacular linger on as silent stars.
Upon arrival it became a high chair, door jamb, seat cushion, step ladder, and even, under the right circumstances, a drummer’s practice pad.
As we move from the page to the screen, and even from our own bodies and into virtual reality, we risk losing any number of nostalgic traditions like our phone book. A friend laments that her young daughter may never know the decadent bliss of a Sunday morning with all sections of the New York Times overtaking the living room. Is it better for the trees now?
And yet there remains one ghoulish purpose for which the phone book in its original paper form was uniquely suited. I’ll tell it briefly: In my building, a grizzled, elderly man had staked out our vestibule as his personal territory. One wintry night, apparently, his sovereignty there had been challenged by an aggressive new arrival. I say “apparently” because the story was recounted for me by the traumatized neighbor who happened to have witnessed the brawl between them. I had come home that night only after the medics were gone, to encounter broken glass and step gingerly through the bloody aftermath. In so doing I could easily have slipped on the plasma had not, in a bizarre coincidence, a fresh delivery of yellow pages been perfectly situated to act as a sea wall. That year, no one at our address would be claiming their copy of the yellow pages. On this occasion in my building, the yellow pages had turned to red.
Ironically, just as the telephone in its current, portable iteration takes over our lives, the phone books that I so lovingly remember go the way of the buffalo. The disappearance of the phone book parallels the decline of landline telephones and accentuates the rise of mobile phones and Internet use. About 100 years ago, according to the U. S. Census, there was one telephone for every ten people. Does anyone remember party lines? In 1998, there was one phone per person and nine out of ten U. S. households had a landline. As of 2017, there are 1.4 phones per person and only every other household has a landline.
I’m ashamed to say that we actually placed prank calls to some of the zanier names we discovered. In later years, I would feverishly look up old boyfriends to see if they were still my neighbors, still listed behind the same doors I’d once slammed behind me. And finally, of course, you’d have to look up yourself to make sure you still existed.
Like its counterpart, the landline, the phone book has enjoyed a regrettably short life span. The first one was printed in Connecticut in 1878 by the New Haven Telephone company—two years after the first phone call was placed in 1876. That groundbreaking edition amounted to a single page containing fifty listings and yet people were already eager to utilize the newly-minted phrase that they were “in the book.”
Certainly progress, or at least change, is inevitable. Our once again unlisted, unalphabetized humanity muddles on but I, for one, mourn the loss of the phone book.
Children will still sit for music lessons—but without that comfortable padding of the white pages, what now will boost their little fingers to the piano keys? No doubt something made of plastic to be ordered from Amazon.
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