Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

The time is close at hand when the scattered members of the civilized communities will be as closely united, as far as instant telephonic communication is concerned, as the various members of the body are by the nervous system.

Scientific American, 1880

In the tumultuous year 1968, I was living in New York City in a world of hard-wired telephones, telephone booths, telephone books, and telephone exchanges — ORchard and MUrray Hill and BUtterfield and the rest. In the coin boxes of pay phones you found lost quarters and dimes, and in every booth the telephone book hung, like a Bible chained in a medieval library, and about as thick; vandalized and ragged sometimes, but necessary and eternal.

Until recently I would have said, if asked, that the very first listing in the 1968 Manhattan White Pages was a shop or business, possibly one of many emergency locksmiths (their services were often required in that much-burgled borough) whose name began with several As — e.g., AAA AAA Emergency Locksmith. But now I have looked into that phone book (well, a CD-ROM of the phone book from the year before, close enough) and the first locksmith is well down the column. The first listing is simply A, at 2145 Amsterdam Avenue. The next listing is another A, on 2nd Avenue, and then A, on East 38th Street. And I am reminded of the trick then used by New Yorkers who didn’t want to pay the charge for an unlisted phone number, or wanted a secret number easily passed to others. You just had your phone listed in code, or by your nickname, or a memorable letter.

I certainly remember the very last name in the white pages of that directory, Archimedes Zzzyandottie. I once inserted that name and fact into a novel, thinking it would likely seem invented, but it isn’t or wasn’t. There it is in my CD-ROM, with a middle initial (I) that I had forgotten and an address on Park Avenue: No. 445. Remarkably, he persists; the Net finds him instantly, now up on East 66th, with a (non-working) number. This evidence of possible continuing existence makes him not more but less real to me than he was as a particle or footnote secure in my memory. Maybe the name was a code or beard all along.

I remember these and similar peculiarities of the 1968 phone book only because, along with a number of other hippies, street people, oddballs, losers, and dropouts, I was hired that year by a temporary employment agency to proofread the pages of the Manhattan directory in a loft someplace in the West 40s.

Of course the New York Telephone Company (later Bell Atlantic, then NYNEX, now part of Verizon) had a large staff of proofreaders and copy editors somewhere in their system, but it was devoted to making certain that the everyday directories of all five New York City boroughs were free of human errors when checked against the millions of cards that New Yorkers filled out when requesting telephone service at a particular location. The pages that our band of oddments proofread were an entirely new and different thing: they had been compiled and printed by computer.

We took slightly enlarged photostats of the original book (designated “the metal” because it was printed from linotype plates, or “slugs”), and using a magnifying bar we compared it, listing by listing, with new, computer-compiled printed pages of the book. When we discovered an error in the new book (I can’t remember now what shorthand word we used for it), we took, from a constantly replenished pile, a slip of paper printed at the top with the letters B M L D T, each letter corresponding to a particular class of error. (We called this slip a “bee-melt.”) The faulty listing was copied onto the sheet and the appropriate letter circled. When a page or a set of pages was done, the bee-melts were wrapped up in them and rubber bands put around them; they were stacked like logwood, ready to go out at week’s end. It was more like a Dickensian counting-house or a medieval scriptorium than anything to do with digitization.

I can’t say that I know the date on which the telephone book began to be set by computer, but I have learned from the New York Times online archive that in 1967 a Photon 901 photocompositor was being used to produce a phone book for Staten Island, New York City’s least populous borough. The article is devoted more to the exciting new process of photocomposition than to the phone book, or to Staten Island. “The element that is common to all high-speed photocomposition devices is that they are designed to be used with computers. In fact, they cannot be used without electronic data processing,” says the article. Delistings and updatings take moments when done on computers; the matter to be printed is stored on a few pounds of magnetic tape, “compared with more than two tons of somewhat behind-the-time metal slugs.” It’s possible that photon was the word we were given to use for the newly set pages. I haven’t learned how the computer acquired the listings we studied, but they contained thousands of errors, mostly having to do with alphabetization.

The structure of names and phone numbers in a book is a memory system; it inherits methods from a legion of pre-telephone city directories (which were mostly Yellow Pages–style advertising) and takes its rationale from the long labors of book indexers. Digitization, the fat baby that would grow to eat them all up, hadn’t learned the rules yet, or how to follow them. Our computer was often unable to act on the rule that in the phone book A&M and A-M are identical modifiers, meant to be alphabetized by a successive descriptor (as in “A&M Realty” and similar); it put most, though not all, of the hundred entries beginning with “NY” (or “N Y”) in with people whose names began with Ny (Nyberg, Nydegger, Nye). We progressed through the book from A to Z at least three times in the next couple of years, correcting the same errors (and the same kinds of errors) over and over.

This activity, the endless examination of names and numbers meaningless to the examiner, should have been excruciatingly boring. But the oddest thing was how strangely and continually interesting it was to me, how educational, how gripping. Mark Twain says that while crossing the West by stagecoach with nothing much to read but an unabridged dictionary, he “had many an exciting day . . . wondering how the characters would turn out.” It was like that: maybe the simple combination of intense concentration and a deprived imagination accounts for how vivid the people whose names I read were to me. I wasn’t a New Yorker born and bred; I’d only come there four years before, after graduation from a Midwestern university. I had a rough map of Manhattan in my brain, its neighborhoods and their qualities, where I could place the people whose names and addresses I read, and as I worked the map became — or seemed to become — ever more active and populated, like those opening scenes of old musicals in which a street or a square fills up with funny or typical characters one after another until a whole crowd has gathered and is singing together.

I learned that almost all the people in New York named Singletary lived in Harlem, and I imagined they were descended from slaves given that name because they had no relatives when sold. It was easy to plot the families of Little Italy, people with the same last name living in several apartments in contiguous buildings, calling to one another over the airshafts or coming to one another’s doors with babies and lasagna. I could have been wrong about these people and the many others I speculated about, as wrong as the medieval mapmaker was about the monsters and curiosities he saw thronging far lands and seas. But my map was a map, and when I walked those streets and neighborhoods, I thought I knew the inhabitants in a special way. I was not only proofing the pages and lines, the names and numbers; I was reading the book. And what book could come closer to being called the Book of Life? Life is all that it contained. As soon as they were known about, the dead inhabiting it were made to depart.

I don’t know why the temp agency (it wouldn’t have been New York Telephone itself, I assume) advertised in downtown alternative newspapers alongside ads full of punning references to drugs and psychedelic rock, but for years after I pondered some of those the ads brought in. Bill, who looked like Dürer’s Jesus with his long glistening curls and finely cut mouth: he liked to take acid and sail away on Mahler symphonies. Or Jack, a tall soft-spoken cowboy who’d spent a year in a Mexican prison for attempting to smuggle pot over the border, distressing his Texas farm family. Ed was an older man, bookish and self-educated, who had received the Salvation Army’s services (their “tender mercies,” as he’d say) and was our chief clerk and recorder; he adopted me as a fellow lover (as he saw it) of Western Civilization. Our boss was a former ad agency exec who’d lost everything because of a series of missteps he did not specify, but he was always beautifully turned out, in English shoes, good suits, round glasses, and mustaches brushed upward like S. J. Perelman’s. He had little to do at his desk, and like many of us he often appeared to be narcotized or otherwise chemically altered.

And there was Arthur. Arthur was one of those young men — I suppose he was in his late twenties — who appear middle-aged, and always will. His mustache seemed like a dad’s mustache rather than a youth’s, and his New York Jewish accent was another decade’s too; I can still hear him say “Aptheker” in its tones. Herbert Aptheker was the American Communist Party’s leading intellectual at the time; Arthur was a red-diaper baby whose first memory was of being pushed in his pram in the May Day parade in Union Square, a festivity central to the New York Old Left. Arthur was a Communist, and he was also a schizophrenic; he came to the proofreading job after a long stay in the psychiatric wing at Bellevue, the grand old New York hospital whose name was proverbial in the city as a synonym for gone nuts (“you’re gonna wind up in Bellevue”). Perhaps he’d got out via Thorazine, which was becoming widely prescribed.

Arthur was able to describe with a somewhat shaky objectivity the elaborate delusional world he’d lived in there. Schizophrenic paranoia, deeply personal to each affected soul, tends nevertheless to revolve around a society’s prevailing fears and preoccupations, and in those days such fears often involved Communist conspiracies and ubiquitous Communist agents. So did Arthur’s. In his imaginings a secret worldwide Communist plot was in progress, and had taken over New York and perhaps the world; the people in New York had been replaced by robots, for reasons the Party alone knew. Arthur thought he was the only non-robot left, and Party agents were after him to change him, too. He couldn’t get to them to persuade them that he was on their side and would submit to whatever they wanted of him. Of course the FBI was also after him, because he was a Communist; the difference being that the FBI really was after him, and his parents too. Most days he thought this dilemma was funny, and so did we.

Arthur, like me, was a walker in the city, though his city wasn’t mine. He must have clocked hundreds of miles in his bad periods. Around that time Bloomingdale’s department store began giving out a shopping bag that you’d see everywhere: a midnight blue bag with a high-contrast profile picture of a young woman with long eyelashes, looking down. Arthur in his mad travels once became convinced that these bags were signs: that when he saw someone carrying one, his duty was to turn and go in the direction the bag-carrier had come from. There were so many of these bags on the street that this tedious exercise could go on a long time.

Once he saw a bag coming out of a movie theater, and so he had to go in. It was crazy, he told me: he was watching the movie, which he couldn’t remember anything about, and now and then in the lower right of the screen he began seeing flashes, signs: an X would appear, and vanish; a white dot; two white dots. His job was to log and try to interpret these. Of course, he said, he knew now that they weren’t there at all. But they were: I had been schooling myself in movie production with a goal of making films, and I knew what those signs were. They were signals punched into the film to alert the projectionist to switch reels.

They were really there, Arthur, I said, sure this knowledge would help him. In his puzzlement, in the faint terror I saw in his face as he tried to reconcile the ominous signs he was trying to dismiss as imaginary with the merely utilitarian ones he had really seen, I could grasp a little the pain his disease caused him. On another day he called me over to his station (by this time I was a sort of troubleshooter/supervisor) and told me that two employees sitting behind him were FBI agents. Well, he said, he thought they were pretending to be FBI agents, whispering and pointing, just to get his goat. But he couldn’t stop thinking they really were. He was sweating. I told Arthur they were not FBI agents; they were actually just assholes who liked to cause distress, and I knew this. But what I knew, Arthur could not know in the same way.

I’m a writer of fiction, a trade I had not begun then, and I know very well what the storytelling impulse makes of memory, and how comprehensive scenes and actions get made out of a few actuality traces lingering in the brain’s penetralia, combined with a thousand other images and voices from other times and places, actual and not. Proust knew it, and now MRIs do, too: Nothing is truly recaptured, nothing is retrouvé: memories are made in the present, in every moment. They are assembled as much as recounted.

But we are social animals, and we are good at technology, and the net result has been that over time we have extruded our sociability into our technologies. Technologies of communication (speech, writing, telephones) turn sociability into society. Technologies of memory (books, archives) check doubts and certainties, and while never complete, they are replete; not entirely correct, they are corrective. I can find on the Internet the rules for telephone-directory alphabetization and a picture of the Photon 901; I can find the blue Bloomingdale’s shopping bag from the 1960s, learn the actual meaning of “penetralia,” the spelling of Aptheker, and the presence of the umlaut in Dürer. I can learn the name Singletary was more likely to have been a slave owner’s.

Technologies of connection constantly evolve, yet the older ones aren’t abandoned. Sometimes the evolution goes in reverse while going forward: I can now instantly pull up a lot about someone, read her words and see her face, and seem to hear her voice; but I can’t look up the number of the phone in her purse. In the past I could find her number in any phone booth or ask the operator in a distant city to find it, but anything much more took a private detective.

It used to amuse me how pervasive books and the reading of them were in the imagined futures of old science fiction: people still turning paper pages on spaceships to far galaxies. Now I see there’s no reason for books to go away, though some kinds may: the manual, the guidebook, the atlas, the telephone directory. If these do finally go out of print, there will be collectors who preserve the few that exist. Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, is in favor not only of preserving old phone books but even giving them as gifts: “Perhaps you’d initially be looked at askance, or worse,” he says, but in fact “you are giving a gift of memories, and so each book becomes as individual and unique as the person who is reading his or her own history through it.”

In Shea’s wide-ranging miscellany (I have it on Kindle) there is nothing about the digitization of the New York White Pages at the end of the 1960s. The archivists I contacted at AT&T have found no mention anywhere of our West 40s coven. I have not found a source that proves I myself sat beneath the fluorescents with others and watched the names and numbers pass beneath my magnifier. Was it really like that? It’s the story I have; I’m not lying, but I may not be telling the truth. In that phone book I helped to prepare, my own name surely appeared among all the others, with the address I remember and the number I’ve forgotten, and surely it still does.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His Easy Chair essay will appear in every other issue of the magazine.

More from

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now