Easy Chair — From the September 2014 issue

Page Turner

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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.

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

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