Loss of old phone exchanges, introduction of new area codes stir melancholy
My family had scarcely moved into our northwest Baltimore City home forty-some years ago when C+P Telephone decreed our 358 (FLeetwood 8) phone number would be changed to a number bearing a brand new, 578 exchange. Much worse than the impossibility of turning JKL (5) and PQRS (7) into a word was the utter unfamiliarity and rootlessness of a new exchange — one that wouldn’t immediately convey a sense of place.
I’ve always had a thing for numbers; the black and whiteness of 2 plus 2 always equaling 4 was a childhood comfort amid daily shades of gray, and it’s something I still cling to in adulthood. Numbers (usually) tell the truth. I suspect most lifelong or longtime Baltimoreans rely on 410 numbers to pinpoint the part of town and/or Maryland in which they ring, so it’s no surprise we blanch at newfangled area codes and telephone exchanges.
I’m still mourning 301morphing to 410 (in 1991) and the introduction of the confoundingly nonspecific 443 (in 1997) — though those suddenly seem a lot friendlier than 667. Each change is a chipping away at community, a homogenization, a depersonalization, a loss of that sense of place.
Twenty-three years ago, I called C+P and asked for a number with a TUxedo 9 (889) exchange for my new tea room; servicing Guilford and Roland Park, Tuxedo 9 was once considered the most prestigious Baltimore exchange. The lady at the other end inquired “What if there’s no number available?” To which I replied: “Then I don’t want a phone.”
Just over 12 years ago, I called the phone company to set up service for my Bolton Hill house. My correspondent was local (not a given now) and amused by my request for a NOrth 9 (669) number. He cheerfully recited all the available numbers, until I stopped him at the most perfect symmetrical number.
I similarly picked my mobile number, settling on one with a 428 exchange and its final four digits a repeating pair of numbers I consider spiritual. (It only later occurred to me that the universe had surely intervened, as 428 spells HAT, of which I have hundreds.)
This month’s announcement of the upcoming introduction of the 667 area code coincided with my checklist item to call Verizon to hook up service at my Inner Harbor residence-to-be. I was already set on a SAratoga 7 number because it reminds me in particular of my Zadie, a 50-plus-year Hutzler’s (SAratoga 7 - 1234) employee, and in general of the best of old downtown Baltimore. The lady in Illinois at the other end announced there were no numbers available in that one or old downtown exchange, but I implored her to combine SAratoga 7 with the last four digits of my cell phone, and thus my new number was born.
My husband, an insatiably curious architectural historian, Googled previous owners of the number and discovered a real estate broker who held the number for decades. A neighbor shares this gent’s unusual last name, and this being Smalltimore, he had been her father-in-law. He advertised profusely in the Baltimore Sun, and his ads almost always appeared just above those of the man who built my splendid 1883 row.
The sadness of leaving Bolton Hill for Scarlett Place (or anyplace) was tremendously eased by a neighbor who told me her grandfather was William Scarlett, owner of the seed company building that begat the condo development. A parsing of the financial numbers indicates our drastic downsizing of square footage (OK, and responsibility), combined with a splendid harbor view, is ever so barely doable. To economize, we really could make do without a home phone. But our new number securely connects us to the Baltimore of old.