Angell, on telephone exchanges
by Roger Angell
February 10, 2003
Verizon has applied the branding iron, and starting this week everybody in Manhattan must punch in a 1 and then a 212 (or a 646 or 917) in front of the old local number before talking to his or her office or bookie or life companion or dog-walker or newspaper-delivery service (where was our Post yesterday?). It’s not such a big deal—I already knew I was a 212—but eleven numbers instead of seven are now required to bring about a conversation, which means a further lowering of the gray digit cloud that hangs over each of us, Pig Pen-like, from the moment we get up in the morning to the time we brush our teeth at night. The added numbers also signal the end of my hopes that the phone company might someday see the error of its integer infatuation and turn back to the exchange letters and (before that) the sprightly full exchange names that once identified us. I’ve lived at the same Manhattan address for thirty years and in that span have gone from a LEhigh 4 prefix to LE 4 to 534 and now to 1-212-534, which is the wrong direction. Yes, there are zillions more number variations now available than what can be wrung out of those puny alphabet groups jammed onto your Touchtone, but let’s try harder. Why not some fresh exchanges instead? Why not WEevil 3? What about OSiris 4? What’s wrong with LUst 7, BOwwow 9, or LInoleum 6? The number I know best, next to my own, belongs to our friends Allan and Marie, who have converted their drab, Upper West Side 496-5844 into the mnemonic GYM LUGG.
I’m an old New York guy, and can recall the day in 1930 when our Atwater 8435 took an extra digit and became ATwater 9-8435. Growing up, I began to apprehend that Manhattan telephone exchanges, which were geographically assigned, were a guide map and social register to my delightful city. West Side school friends of mine could be reached at the MOnument or CAthedral or RIverside exchange. My father worked at the WHitehall exchange, down near Wall Street, and my mother at the mid-West Forties’ BRyant 9. BUtterfield 8 was just south of us on the Upper East Side, with TRafalgar, REgent, and RHinelander not far away. When my parents were divorced and my mother moved to East Eighth Street, she became a SPring 7, and neighbors and stores and movie theatres in that neighborhood had lively ALgonquin, CHelsea, and WAtkins handles. If you called up one of the Times Square movie theatres, to find the next showtime for “Cimarron” or “Rasputin and the Empress,” the exchange was probably LOngacre. In my early teens, I was in love with a girl named Rosie, who lived a dozen blocks away, and we passed endless, almost wordless half hours together on the phone, ATwater and ENdicott breathing as one, until the inexorable “Oop, my dad—bye.”
Folks all over New York (and all over the country) have similar names and allusions deep inside them, and once sensed the social significance of a nice exchange number. Bruce, a colleague of mine, grew up in the Grand Concourse area of the Bronx, with a home WEllington 5 exchange that wasn’t as tony, he says, as BAinbridge, over near Mosholu Parkway. My wife, a Queens girl, understood that her own HAvermeyer 8 exchange was better—”but only a little better”—than her grandmother’s NEwtown 9. It’s my theory that, back in the telephonic Eocene, New York Tel wanted to comfort its better patrons with exchange names that suggested brokerage firms or Waspy lawyers, and came up with WIckersham, VAnderbilt, BOgardus, BArclay, and BUtterfield. RHinelander looks snooty, too, but is ethno-geographical if you think about it, since most of its customers lived in the Germanic, East Eighty-sixth Street area of Yorkville. Later Manhattan exchanges like OXford and my own LEhigh, which were tacked on in the fifties, lacked the lime-flower-tea cachet. My friend Tad remembers moving into Manhattan from the suburbs a little after this and being issued a new YUkon number. “That’s when I knew I was an outsider in the big city,” he said. “I was hanging on by my fingernails.”
Two old tunes about Manhattan telephone exchanges: 1. Glenn Miller’s “PEnnsylvania 6-5000,” which was the phone number of the Pennsylvania Hotel, where Miller (and Benny Goodman, too) often played the Madhattan Room. 2. Fleecie Moore’s “Caledonia”—a girl named for the exchange, as in “CaleDOHNNyah, whatmakesyourbigheadsohard?”
Back in the time of John O’Hara’s 1935 novel “BUtterfield 8″—which is to be called “1-212-288” in future editions—people never heard a recorded message when they made a call. If they needed help, they got to talk to an operator. On page 38, a man is trying to reach a New York girl he hasn’t seen in years. “Will you try that number again, please?” he says. “It’s Stuyvesant, operator. Are you dialling S,T, U? . . . Well, I thought perhaps you were dialling S,T, Y.” But nobody’s home.
Copied from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/02/10/030210ta_talk_angell