“[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.