Vintage TGB: 28 September 2004

[Each Saturday, a vintage story from the Time Goes By archive is published here. They correspond to a date of approximately five years ago – sometimes updated, sometimes not.]

The Numerous Number of Numbers

Back in 1956, when Crabby Old Lady was a teenager, she lived (before it was chic and rich and oh-so-overly-cute) in the small town of Sausalito, California - one of the last places in the U.S. to get dial telephones.

Answering machines and cell phones were not dreamed of yet, and when Crabby wanted to speak with her best friend, the telephone conversation sometimes went like this:

MILDRED: Operator…

CRABBY: Hi, Mildred. Would you connect me to Judy, please.

MILDRED: She’s not home, Crabby. She waved at me when she walked by the telephone office a few minutes ago. You’ll probably find her at the Tides.

CRABBY: Thanks, Mildred.

Mildred knew everyone in town by voice, appearance and habit, and she was better than any answering machine. Crabby would stroll along the seawall from her house to the Tides Book Shop and that’s where she’d find Judy. Or maybe around the corner in the coffee shop. Or perhaps over at the boat dock. If Mildred was off by 50 or 100 yards, she was usually correct about the general vicinity.

Some of you may be old enough, as Crabby Old Lady is, to remember the good ol’ days when there were only about three personal numbers to memorize: street address, telephone and Social Security. And, possibly, the car license plate. Since then, the number of numbers - and the number of digits in each number - required to navigate modern life has exploded, and they are stretching Crabby’s old brain to its limit.

Telephone Numbers
Crabby’s telephone number back in the 1950s was Sausalito 113. Judy’s was Sausalito 1819. Nowadays, to call even a neighbor takes 11 digits, and Crabby can no longer assume that anyone in town has the same area code. She has lost count, but believes there are about nine or ten different area codes in New York City, randomly assigned and no longer attached to neighborhoods as they once were when the prefixes had charming names like BUtterfield and ALgonquin.

Every working person, in addition to home and cell phone numbers, now has an additional individual telephone number at their office along with, sometimes, a work cell phone number. That’s four telephone numbers per friend. What’s a Crabby Old Lady to do? And don’t tell her to program the numbers into her telephone. With two phones – home and cell – to program, Crabby isn’t ever going to commit to that tedious chore more than once.

There was a time, no more than ten years ago, when Crabby knew most of her frequently-called telephone numbers by heart. Now, she’s still struggling to memorize all the numbers for just the two people she calls most often. Maybe this is why we do so much by email and lament that we don’t talk “in person” as much as we once did.

[UPDATE 26 September 2009: Crabby has reduced her personal phones to one, a cell, added Skype, and her cell provider allows new numbers to be added at their website using a full-size keyboard rather than teeny buttons. They can then be downloaded to her phone. A vast improvement since this post was written.]

Cable Channel Numbers
Crabby has lately become frustrated, too, with cable television channel numbers. There are hundreds of channels now, most of which Crabby has never seen (who watches all this stuff?), and it is impossible to recall the numbers that go with the channel names. SpikeTV? TRIO? Times Discovery? Crabby can’t find them.

Sometimes Crabby reads of a program she would like to see on one of these channels, but they are listed in the little brochure the cable provider sends out not sensibly in alphabetical order, but in numerical order, in six-point, orange, unreadable type. The weekly, newspaper television guide lists channel numbers, but no names. By the time Crabby finds the channel, the show’s half over.

Then, about twice a year, in what must be an altruistic effort to help improve the mental capacities of its subscribers, Time Warner switches channels around and favorites suddenly have new numbers. Crabby is beginning to suspect that falling TV ratings have less to do with the internet leeching viewers’ time as the impossibility of finding the right channel before the show ends.

Crabby has only scratched the surface of the too many numbers she is expected to know. There are Zip Codes and radio station frequencies, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, pin codes, passwords, driver’s license numbers, the pizza delivery number, the doctor, the dentist, the candlestick maker.

What Crabby wants, before her brain locks up, is her own personal Mildred to track all her numbers.


Growing up in the fifties in prewar buildings on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I had ample playmates in those tall buildings (where the doorman was the switchboard). My friend Iris and I spent half our youth, it seemed, figuring out how to make into phones those frozen juice cans connected with a string... the whole contraption raised up to the third floor of the courtyard... her bedroom on one side and my kitchen on the other. That was our toll-free, number-free phone (when we weren't calling across the courtyard by voice, Molly-Goldberg style). Thanks for the memories (and please keep unpacking your vintage tales... delicious).

I loved your blog. I hadn't thought about telephone operators in years. Ours used to be my aunt, so in addition to finding and calling friends we would also get a family update. Thanks for the memory.

Party lines? You didn't mention them. I remember that we were not able to afford a two-party line and had to make do with a 6 party-line. It was a 'class' thing in those days.

And who is the cell provider that let's you add numbers on their website?


Verizon lets me add contacts online and then make a call to sync my saved names/numbers with my phone.

And then there was the "mom's not home game" when you could listen to your neighbors' phone conversations & someone always said: who's on this line? Oh such excitement on a Saturday morning. Also you could raise the receiver button just a smidge & listen!
Thanks Ronni for reminding me. Dee

Oh yes. Chula Vista 79, a party line.....long gone. I only have one number memorized now. My husband's cell. If I lose my big, bulky phone and appointment book, Life as I know it will collapse into a black hole. LOL

Loved this. Thanks for the smiles.

Sometimes I can't even remember my own telephone number. If an office girl on the phone asks for it and I have to answer quickly, I can't think of it and get it confused with my S. S. number (It starts out with the same 3 numbers). Maybe I should go back to worrying about dementia. (?)

My TREO serves as my Nettie Emery (our operator in Milo MO), now. Nettie would let me "help" her with the switchboard if I was really "good".

As to addresses: Who needed numbers? We had no numbers. The name + Milo MO would get mail to anybody.

Thanks, Ronni, for the repeat.

"What Crabby wants, before her brain locks up, is her own personal Mildred to track all her numbers."

There's an app for that.... ;^) (or will be soon)

too many numbers is correct.

when I was growing up we had a party line. If it rang once it was not for your number, if it rang twice it was. And oh those neighbors who would hog the party line when mother wanted to make a call.

And remember when a "long distance call" meant bad news? No one ever called long distance for a trivial reason.

I surely do agree with cable channels. Why they can't print them out in solid black on white so we can read them (and do it alphabetically) I'll never know. Maybe we should bombard them all with a comment about that and hope for the best!!

Take a number, any number ...
Remember when everyone got quiet when someone was on the phone?
Or even when there was only one phone in the house?
TV channels -few, late night viewing was Roller Derby.
Remember when the National Anthem played and the American Flag began to wave, and you knew the next thing was a test pattern?
Fun stuff, thanks Ronni for the trip down memory lane.

Hi Crabby, Yes, to your post! I have had the same thoughts about all these darn numbers our society has created for some time. I opt out on owning a TV plus I have only one index card by the phone with numbers of folks I call frequently and a few policy numbers. If you are not on my index card you will have to call me -- Sorry for that but I was programmed in a different era.

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