Wrong num­ber

Loss of old phone ex­changes, in­tro­duc­tion of new area codes stir melan­choly

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Donna Beth Joy Shapiro

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.


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