I have a head for numbers — by which I do not mean I’m a math whiz. I just remember the darned things. Phone numbers especially. I once woke up remembering a number, remembering that it was somehow important. So I dialed it and found out it was the dormitory at Barnard College, at that time a girl’s school. I had been out of college for years by then.
In the years since, I have effortlessly memorized phone numbers. But now that’s all changed. Now we have moved to area code 978, to a place where, what’s more, an area code is required to dial every number. It took me months to memorize my own phone number. I still can’t tell you my fax number with any degree of certainty. And I had to make a conscious effort to memorize the number of our best friends in the area.
It’s that blasted number seven in the middle. Area codes are supposed to have ones or zeros in the middle. Without that, remembering a phone number seems harder than recalling the proper spelling of a Polish name. (Sorry, Wlady.) It’s all consonants, numerically speaking.
So here’s a suggestion. Bring back named exchanges. When I was a kid in Minneapolis, I lived across the street from the Orchard-7 telephone exchange building. It later became Kellogg-7, but no matter. We need those names back, both for an aid to memory and for the evocation of place which makes up so large a part of the American soul. (“St. Paul and Kansas City, Des Moines and Kankakee…”) There’s an obvious hunger for the combination of words and numbers. Advertisers do it all the time. How many numbers like One-Eight Hundred-CARPETS have you heard?
Exchange names mean something. Glenn Miller had a hit with “Pennsylvania Six, Five Thousand.” An old time girl-group sang about “Beachwood Four, Five-Seven- Eight-Nine.” (And yes, Wilson Picket did the same number numerically, but it was a different tune.) A 1920s whimsy song featured an operator wondering about a fellow whose voice she had found enchanting: “I’m in love with a man, Plaza Oh, Double Four, Double Three…”
Exchanges bestow names on neighborhoods — or is it the other way around? Think of Beekman, Sutton, Plaza, and Murray Hill in New York; Hollywood in Los Angeles; Walnut, Prospect, and Jordan in San Francisco.
I’m doing my part. I have named our local exchange “Otter.” We have Otter-3, Otter-6, and Otter-8 in this area. (Lake Otter lies not too far away.)
Of course the telephone providers have good reasons for wanting to use the numeric system (All-Numeric Calling, or ANC, introduced starting in 1958). Telephone numbers have multiplied. We have four associated with our household, two cells, a land line, and the aforementioned forgotten fax. So yes, I know the telephone companies need more numbers. We can have both.
Cell phones today allow you to send alphabetical messages, or make alphabetical entries in a phone book or speed-dial directory. It shouldn’t be hard to program all phones to be able to do the same thing in places five and six — or indeed anywhere else. You dial one, then an area code, and then come two places where you can use the keys on the pad to enter letters of the alphabet. That effectively turns those two 10-based number system places into a number system based on 26.
I’ll let John Derbyshire figure out how many more numbers that would open up.
For my part, I can point to the commercial advantages. Phone providers can sell the naming rights to exchanges. Think of dialing Exxon 1-2345. Or Ameritrade 5-4321. How different would it be from selling the naming rights to a sports stadium, after all? Out in the hinterlands, you might end up with Bonnie’s Diner 9-8765, or Jones Veterinary Group 1-2345. But in the cities, it should go gangbusters. If you can persuade Hotwire to buy pop-up ads on the Internet, how much harder could it be to persuade them to buy an entire telephone exchange? Think of the exposure! Think of the retention! Think of repetition!
Only problem, of course, is that your phone number might change every year.
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