[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:
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.
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.