Remember Telephone Books?

I was reading The Information, by James Gleick, and came across this passage on page 194:

“[Telephone books] went obsolete, effectively, at the turn of the twenty-first century.  American telephone companies were officially phasing them out by 2010; in New York, the end of automatic delivery of telephone directories was estimated to save 5,000 tons of paper.”

What are small children going to sit on when they are too big for high-chairs, but too small to reach the dinner table by sitting on a regular chair?  Copies of the The Information?  Whatever the effects are, this intelligence reminded me of a story, as told to me by a friend.  This is what he said:

“I always thought it was so nice of the telephone company to distribute free copies of the telephone book to the doorstep of each house.  Every summer these yellow directories would magically appear, as if to say, ‘Your telephone company loves you.’

“On delivery day, I could see the books in front of every home.  But the homeowners, for some reason, were not always that anxious to adopt the books, and often left them out there for a day or two.  I smelled opportunity, and one year I went out and stole every copy of the telephone book that had been delivered in our neighborhood.

“Under cover of night I went door to door, grabbing the yellow tome before the homeowner awoke or dog started barking.  It was tedious work. I could not carry more than two or three under each arm, and so had to make frequent trips back to my house.  I stored the telephone books in my closet, and when I was done there was not much room for my clothes.

“I remember exactly how the telephone books looked in my closet.  Five-foot stacks that shoved my pants and shirts aside.  The pristine spines glowed like bars of gold with advertisements for personal injury lawyers.  I thought about the thousands of names and addresses and telephone numbers of people I would never know.  I thought about all of the pizzerias and locksmiths and hardware stores and roofers and orthodontists that were nestled in next to my old sneakers and a stop sign I stole over spring break.  I thought about all of the trees that had been cut down to make these telephone books, and that by stealing them I was saving the trees, in a way.

“But what I did not think about was how I was going to keep these stacks of books a secret during a time when I still lived with my parents and did not do my own laundry.  I guess I should have thought about that. 

“I would later tell my mother, upon questioning, that I did not know why I stole the telephone books.  Grown-ups always got annoyed when kids said they did not know why they did something bad.  But in my case it was true; I really did not know.  It just seemed like the thing to do.  The phone books were free of charge, in the open, not nailed down, and easy to spot in the dark.  In the summer, when there was nothing to do, this was something to do that did not entail hopping fences.

“With a little less MTV and a little more foresight, I might have told my mother that I was helping train my neighbors for a time when telephone books would no longer be distributed.  I was doing them a favor!  But instead I gave my stock answer: I looked at the ground and said, ‘I don’t know.’  I thought about that answer as I returned the telephone books to each and every neighbor that night.”

Had my friend continued I’m sure he would have concluded his tale by saying that he learned a valuable lesson; that no amount of midnight mischief is worth depriving one’s neighbors of their means of communication.  But at that moment his cell phone rang.  He picked it up and said, “Hello?…Really?  The Verizon guy just left the modem sitting on their stoop?…I’ll be right there,” and then left, pleading a prior engagement.

20 thoughts on “Remember Telephone Books?

  1. Funny.

    The only time I robbed a bank was in 2005. We had just moved to Calgary from Thailand and it was Day 2 in our new house. We had no family in town. The city, undergoing a record growth spurt, had no phone books left, now would they until October. So when I saw one in the bank’s waiting room, I stuffed it into the kids’ diaper bag and walked out. Then I ordered internet and never used it again.

    1. Wow, that’s pretty fearless, considering that most banks have security cameras. On the other hand, a woman stuffing a phone book into a diaper bag, and then taking off like Bonnie and Clyde would be a hilarious Internet video. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your heroic story.

  2. Aaaargh! Phone books are the bane of my existence. A little background: our recycling is picked up only once a month so it always seems we are drowning in paper diligently saved for pickup.

    I have the (mis)fortune of living in the twilight zone of two phone service areas. Both companies provide phone books; it feels like a new set comes every couple of months. I signed on to the “do not deliver” list and got a very polite letter saying “We’re sorry, but we are not able to remove your address from our delivery list.” I wish I was kidding, but that story is 100% true.

    1. I hear you about drowning in paper garbage. I bet the reason the phone company could not remove you from their delivery list is that there is no delivery list. The company probably just delivers to every house in the neighborhood, and excepting certain houses would cost it more than the price of an extra telephone book. But I bet that one day it’ll all come to an end…for you, for me, for everyone.

  3. Mark, didn’t you also stack those boxes from Happy Meals? Stacking seems to be a thing with you. Don’t get me wrong. I like this about you. I just thought I should point out that this compulsion to steal might really be a compulsion to stack — in disguise.

    Now that I am over 40, I can’t even see the numbers in the phone book without my glasses (which I can rarely find). I go straight to the computer and ZOOM in on everything. I don’t know why they still deliver phone books at all. Maybe so boys can steal them and stack them in their bedrooms at night. 😉

    1. Mark doesn’t really have a stacking compulsion. I believe he just wants to remain a member in good standing of Monty Python’s Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things.

    2. That’s very perceptive of you, Renée. But stacking is everywhere! Our emails and previous blog posts are stacked in reverse chronological order. Playing cards and books are stacked. Even the layers of the Earth itself are stacked. Perhaps my stacking is a desire to mimic the ordering found in nature. Or maybe I just like to put things on top of other things.

  4. Funny stuff, Mark!

    I still get a phone book, two actually. One locally, large print and the bigger one. I WISH a neighbourhood kid would have stolen mine from the front step because I don’t use them (although I might if I suddenly lost internet access…no wait, I’d lose my MIND if that happened, so it would all be moot).

    I think there’s a market for a “retro” booster seat – old phone books melded together with a housecoat-tie strap….hmmm……

    1. Thank you, Liz. Isn’t it funny how the neighborhood mischief-makers never perform the mischief we wish would happen? It’s as if they know, and do not want to waste their mischief unless it will be perceived as such. But that’s a great idea for a booster seat! I would patent that.

  5. I never liked phone books. I would have loved for a neighborhood kid to come and relieve me of mine. I would usually put off picking mine up for a day or two and then it would rain and get ruined any way….

    1. The only thing worse than a phone book that you don’t use is a wet phone book you don’t use. You can’t really do anything with that, except let it dry and see if the process made the phone book any easier to rip apart. Maybe that’s how those people who rip apart telephone books do it.

  6. My family once took side work delivering phone books when I was a kid. I remember a couple weeks straight of driving around local neighborhoods and running those things everywhere. At one point my mom though I was in the car and pulled up the next house, but she ran over my foot. Somehow the sole of my shoe took the impact and I suffered no injury. And that’s the weirdest phone book story I have.

    1. Untangle knots of power cords and chargers. Although that requires not so much strength as speed and dexterity. Perhaps we are entering a new era of pointless demonstrations of physical acumen.

  7. When I was in college, I got rear-ended by a couple of SUVs, landing my car in the shop for a couple of weeks. They lent me a huge (HUGE) brown Lincoln or something or other, and no matter how far I adjusted the seat, I couldn’t see over the steering wheel. I had a phone book plus a little pillow to sit atop so I could drive safely. Had this happened in 2010 instead of 2003, I don’t know what I would have done. Wrecked, maybe. Or worse, had my mom drive me around.

    PS, I used the phone book this morning because I couldn’t run upstairs to our computer room and because my iPhone was charging elsewhere. Ta-daaaa!

  8. Interesting…you’ve shown that the old technology can be both more convenient and more effective than the new. Sitting on an iPhone isn’t going to help you see over the steering wheel, is it?

    But seriously, rear-ended by a couple of SUVs? As in more than one? Were they in some kind of contest to see who could read your license plate first?

    1. Mom will remember sitting on two phone books in 1971 as she drove my 1962 Volvo 544 in Alexandria, Virginia. I was stationed at Fort Belvoir at the time.

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