Numbers game

Originally published in The Tampa Review, 1992 

You can't, it turns out, phone home again, either.

I'm losing the phone number of my childhood.  Part of my soul is going with it.  In these days of geographic mobility I am an anomaly.  When I was thirteen months old my parents moved from New Orleans to Springfield, Missouri, uprooting my older siblings from established lives but setting in concrete mine.  Never again would my parents move house.  That assemblage of brick and wood and metal and fabric at 2652 Edgewater served for me as something few people have in more than an abstraction: home.  Until now.

My mother has moved out of the old place.  Of course I have a sentimental attachment to the house; I lived there for seventeen years, after all, and it is the receptacle of many memories.  But it's not as if the house has burnt down or been spirited away in some other disaster.  The house remains where it always has.  Neighbors are the same, available for visits at any time.  Many of the house's furnishings will in fact become even more accessible to me ‑‑ I'm taking them to my own home.  So the house lives on as a tangible entity, a physical referent.The same cannot be said of my phone number.My phone number has been disconnected, snatched away never to be mine again.  It doesn't matter that I haven't lived at home in more than nine years, that's my phone number.  Those seven numbers, either spoken, written or converted into electronic pulses, are something of me more than representative.  They are a part of me as much as my hair or personality or name even.  A telephone number is an identity.We have built up a distrust of identifying numbers.  Images of Big Brotherism and concentration camp tattoos and impersonal bureaucracies crop into our collective mind, and my passion for a childhood telephone number would seem in precise contradiction to this American mind‑set.But a telephone number is different, distinct from all those others that make people shout out, "I'm more than a number!"  It's the difference between an active sentence and a passive one.  Some numbers act upon you, they're demanding and possessive.  A phone number is one that you control, an extension of you rather than a replacement for you.Our relationships with telephone numbers as opposed to Social Security numbers or credit card numbers or account numbers or driver's license numbers is revealed in our language and actions.

When a caller inquires, "Is this 632‑0937?" we have no qualms about anthropomorphizing into a numeric identity."Yes, this is," we answer.  Or, "No, you've got the wrong person.""Here's my number, get in touch with me soon."In touch.A phone number is something we guard, but give out to people we trust, like and love.  A credit card number is something we guard and give out to people we conduct business with.A phone number identifies us to friends wanting to tell us about what happened at the office today.  A Social Security number identifies us to bureaucrats wanting to tell us we're scheduled for a tax audit.When strangers use our telephone numbers to intrude into our privacy and sell us something, we are indignant.  When strangers use our house numbers to invade our homes and sell us something, we unflinchingly dispose of the intrusion without a whimper.Giving or getting a phone number marks a barrier crossed into a more intimate relationship.  "Did she give you her phone number?" we ask to gauge the success of a given encounter.  Some people, to be done with an unpleasant person, will give a false phone number.  By misrepresenting ourselves with wrong phone numbers, assuming another identity, we show how important and closely held the real things are.In the same way huge, impersonal corporations use phone numbers to personalize themselves, to give them a human face.  "To order, dial 1‑800‑4WARMTH" or "Call us now at GET‑LOVE."

And, for me anyway, a telephone number is a touchstone (a touchtone?) with reality.  If I'm watching a movie or television show there is nothing more jarring than the ubiquitous 555‑construction telephone number.  It would be just as well to put a thirty‑second slide on the screen proclaiming, "What you are watching is not true.  If this performance happened to succeed in transporting you into a state where you could suspend your disbelief, we wish now to break the spell."  No one has a 555 phone number and that fact glares at me every time I hear it.  This is not a person, I automatically think, it's an insubstantial, two‑dimensional image of light and shadow.I've often wondered about the genesis of these dramatic phone numbers.  Somewhere, sometime, a studio lawyer decided it was a liability risk to use a real phone number in a movie.  I suspect, moreover, that the practice is a result of lemming‑thought.  Few people want to challenge conventional wisdom, alter the status quo or break formulae proven successful.This theory I base on the fact that there are rare instances (though never on television, bolstering my argument) when real telephone numbers are used in movies.  It must be possible, legal, to do it.  Whenever a director or screenwriter uses real phone numbers it raises immeasurably my estimation of the film, no matter its other merits or faults.So telephone numbers are important, have weight, culturally.  We think of them as something more than numbers; in some way they are a part of us, in some way they ARE us.  But what prompts me to ponder all this is not societal.  It's personal.

Neither is it related to some numerological mysticism.  I don't think my childhood phone number has shaped me into the adult I am today and that I would be so much better off had that three been a seven.  There are pleasant characteristics to my phone number, which I will address shortly, but I assign them only aesthetic, and not mystic, significance.  I'm not obsessed with numbers.  Sometimes, though I use it often, I have to pull out my Social Security card to make certain of my number.  My sister can recite her locker combination from seventh grade and a friend in California knows his sixteen‑digit MasterCard account number by heart.  I cannot even approach this devotion to things numerical.A further explanation of my feelings is related to the changes in our relationships with phones.  There is an associative link between my old phone number and a time of greater innocence not only in my life, but the nation's.  Back when I was learning my phone number Ma Bell was still intact.  It was the Phone Company.  Bell owned the telephone that sat in your house (rare was the multiple‑extension home) attached permanently by an umbilical cord to the wall.The simplicity of design in these phones is strangely appealing, and not only for their retro nostalgia.  Old phones are squat, yet somehow elegant; intuitive with their dials and surrounding numbers but still a bit odd, whimsical even, with the assignment of letters to numbers ‑‑ numerals one and zero get no letters, Q is inexplicably omitted and Z just doesn't make it on the end.There was no voice mail in the days of rotary phones, nor 900 numbers to call in and vote for your favorite stars, nor 9600‑baud modems to transmit data ever faster over fiber optic lines.  To think we once used telephones to talk to each other.

The telephone used to be permanently attached to the wall.  There were no jacks, easily disconnected to take the phone with you.  The Phone Company expected you to stay put.  If you didn't, you sure weren't taking the telephone with you.  Now, even when we pretend to be settled somewhere permanently, we have cordless phones.  Phones you can carry anywhere, untethered, in perfect freedom ‑‑ or at least the illusion of it.The time fast approaches when all of us face a sea change in our relations with phones and phone numbers.  Simple population growth in combination with technology‑driven demand for more and more numbers (facsimile machines and computer modems often need their own lines) is fast depleting the available numbers in the nation's more populous area codes.  The situation is already dire and a Southwestern Bell spokesman says an end may come as early as 1995, when we will reach a critical state of exhausted numbers.The finite permutations of numbers available under the North American Numbering Plan necessitates a change in our current system, which instituted Area Codes in 1947.  The last of these area codes was assigned in 1992.  One manifestation of this change in numbering is almost a certainty:  In the not‑too‑distant future every phone call will involve ten digits, even those to the local time & temp or across the street.  What we now know as area codes will no longer be linked to geography, but can shift to population centers instead.  For instance, the unused numbers of the 307 area code assigned to sparsely occupied Wyoming could migrate to areas of greatest need, say Manhattan or Orange County.

From here it is but a small step to the next development.  Permanently assigned telephone numbers, perhaps even issued at birth, are nothing more than a set of industry standards away.  We have, as the saying goes, the technology today.  When the first three digits are divorced from geography a telephone number becomes portable.  You can take it with you, at least across state borders and what are now area code boundaries.This advancement would preclude the dilemma I now face ‑‑ numbers would not be canceled ‑‑ but, in the paradox of technology, it wouldn't much matter.  Permanently assigned, individual numbers would certainly blanch all the charm I now associate with the digits.The Southwestern Bell mouthpiece said we're moving toward "personal communication devices", telephones the size of credit cards he likened to the communicators on Star Trek, that can be carried everywhere and used for data as well as voice transmission.Phone numbers will no longer be assigned to households, but to the disparate individuals comprising them.  Your number will survive crosstown moves, interstate emigration, even divorce.  It will become nothing more than any other encoded means of identification, a serial number for the collection of circuit boards and memory chips that will be our impersonal communication devices in the future.  The pizza place won't even ask your last name:  The restaurant's computer will detect your ten‑digit phone number even before the pimply order taker can answer, whereupon your penchant for Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza will pop up on the store's database and the high school kid can ask you if you want to order the usual.

When this happens, seven‑digit phone numbers themselves will hearken to a bygone time, the same way the physical rotary telephone I associate with my old number does now.  I have an aural attachment to those times, back when phones rang, metal on metal producing the clanging peal of an actual bell.  This is not technological fuddy‑duddyism.  I have nothing against progress and its merits.  I write with the aid of a word processor as opposed to quill and  parchment.  Rather, my opposition is based on the slipshod use of words.  (In this way I rail against legislators who call tinkering with the tax code "reform" ‑‑ such requires an improvement that is at best prematurely proclaimed and usually not merited by results.)My beef with new phones is based solely (that is not to say insignificantly) on semantics.  Phones these days do not ring.  They chirp, bleat, clitter, and pulsate. Ring they do not.  The electronic emanations of today's phones rattle my nerves, yes, but I am more troubled by the inaccurate, unsuitable description of what they do.  "The phone's going off," would be better.  I have one phone that produces these ersatz rings, but own my others precisely because of the metal bells and clacker within them.  On the electronic one I merely turn off the "bell" (we don't even have to take the phone off the hook anymore) and allow the others to toll in majestic cacophony when the phone rings, as it literally does at my house.Still, real rings do nothing to preserve my life‑long telephone number.  I am powerless to do anything about the passing of my childhood numeric identity.  It cannot be captured.Rules, as with everything else in life, govern the assignment of telephone numbers.  As in life the process includes a combination of luck and formal procedures.

Phone numbers, generally, are assigned by chance within certain parameters.  First, an exchange (defined by the three‑number prefix) is established within an area code and numbers are doled out sequentially when new service is established.  The person starting service before me got 0212, the person hooking up just after me received 0214.That a phone number serves as an identity is proved by my own case.  West Plains, a small rural town in southern Missouri where I moved four years ago, has only two exchanges.  The original exchange served the town from the inception of single‑party lines until shortly before my arrival on the scene.  The exchange I got on was established only months before I requested a local line, as indicated by my relatively low number.It's easy enough to be branded an outsider in a small town, having a phone number that proclaims the fact does not help.  When I give my phone number to a fellow citizen it is a proclamation equivalent to a Boston accent or wearing a skull cap:  I ain't from around here.When numbers are disconnected they are recycled and reassigned under, as you might expect, strict guidelines.  A residential number must be out of use for three months before being given to someone else, a business number dormant for six months.  These restrictions are minimums, they try to provide more down time, allow a certain period for a number's identity to decay and wear off and let loose its attachment to a person.

Specific numbers, if within the exchange and not in use, can be requested.  I have a friend in Kansas City who did this to match a nickname.  The last four digits in his number spell out BARN, thus further extending his phone number as identity.It's only a matter of time.  Someday, not only will that number in Springfield not be mine, it will be someone else's.Of course other people have already had my number.  Theoretically, there are one hundred forty‑three other 883‑2314s in the country ‑‑ one for each of 144 area codes.  But that, to me, is no different than the undoubtedly numerous other Paul Flemmings running around at large, some who may even share my middle name.  That does not diminish from my own identity.But this telephone number thing is akin to being assigned another name.  Further injury would be that once stripped of my name someone else would be assigned it for their own use, after a waiting period deigned appropriate for the associations of my name ‑‑ both good and bad ‑‑ to have dispersed.The fallacy is that the action is in only one direction, that only the telephone numbers are capable of attachment.  Do not I have an attachment to the telephone number?Yes, I do.

I have memories ineluctably linked to that number my mother has canceled. I remember learning to copy it down as one of my first attempts to write and making the connection between the scribblings in the middle of the phone's dial with symbols that can be reproduced to mean the same thing to someone else.  I recall the way my best friend's mother would recite the number in French, her native tongue, with a beautiful huit‑huit‑trois that to me was like the melodic chirping of a songbird.  I harbor vivid memories of calling that number collect from a summer camp I most desperately wished to be rescued from, the phone my only link to home.As I grew I gained further affinities for my home telephone number and the characteristics it possessed that, to me, made it distinct, memorable and special.The number is 883‑2314.  Those last four digits are a kind of numerical anagram, a jumble of the first four natural numbers.  (I have, by blind luck, retained a bit of this quirkiness in my current phone number which is anagrammatical of the first four non‑negative integers.)For the simple reason that I've had this phone number so long, I've often engaged in idle thought about its properties and idiosyncrasies.  Sometimes I wonder if there were another number, what the next one would be.  If there is a mathematical progression present in those seven numbers, it's beyond my mind.  Therefore the exercise is intrinsically irrational, beyond logic.  It's an aesthetic question, a flight of fancy, a leap of faith.  I've never been able to decide definitively.  The next number is either a four or a seven.If you transliterate (transnumerate?) my childhood telephone number to musical notes you get C‑C‑E‑D‑E‑C‑F; a pretty little tune.  If you apply the numbers to the alphabet the result is H‑H‑C‑B‑C‑A‑D.  The number is so tattooed on my brain (and I am so aware of patterns, meter, sequence) that I note when this order replicates itself elsewhere.

There are so many reasons I mourn the passing of this telephone number. After my father died, my mother never bothered to change the name the number was listed under: his.  In the years since his death my father has continued to appear in the phone book.  According to Southwestern Bell you can still call up David L. Flemming.  No more.  Next year my dad's name will be stricken from the phone book, kind of the morose antithesis to Steve Martin's Jerk's joyous discovery that he had, finally, made it into the book.I'm distraught at losing my phone number, my identity, but it could be worse.  I just dialed the number (1+, it's long distance but I live in the same area code) and heard the paradoxically soothing recorded voice of a computer.  Instead of the disquieting notice of "disconnection" I'd  expected, I received word that the number had changed, followed by a recitation of my mother's new number.  This was a relief, if only by a matter of degrees.From time to time I will dial up my old number, just to check in.  Soon, I know, it will "no longer be in service."  I've been thinking about the inevitable time when those rings on my line will be answered by a human voice, someone else will have my phone number.Maybe I won't hang up.