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Picking Up on the Yellow Pages:

We’re living in a time when the things we thought would always be there don’t so much disappear as evaporate. General Motors, vinyl records, the Hollywood Christmas Parade… some things maintain a lingering presence as time and change slowly sandpaper them into obscurity. (And I’m not giving up on the Christmas Parade as long as, somewhere, there’s a convertible and Jamie Farr.)

Maybe like me, you recently received a new Los Angeles West Side Yellow Pages phone book on your front porch. Or it might be the Real Yellow Pages, or the Verizon Super Pages, or Yellow Book. You didn’t ask for it but there it is, all 1,400 some-odd pages of it. And you brought it in, an orphan looking for a home. Now it’s one of the most useless freebies lying around your house. Or is it?

There’s no question that Americans would rather push buttons than dirty their fingers flipping through an inky compendium of phone numbers. Who cares if there’s a 700 percent profit for telecoms in every 411 call? We’re not actually going to pick up a phone book and look for a number, are we? What if we’re looking for somebody named Smith? There are over 1,100 of them on the Westside alone. By the way, if you are looking for somebody named Smith, check to see if they list their address as Anytown, USA. And if it’s your new roofers, get that deposit check back. You can call them at 555-OUCH.

I’m not sure finding a phone number on the Internet is necessarily faster than looking it up in a phone book. Of course the business pages in phone books consistently torture us with what we might call “Category Confusion.” Want to get some acupuncture? Should you look under “Doctors” or “Medical” or “Alternative Health” or “Holistic Practitioners”… or “Needlepoint”?

Paper phone books now seem more than a little quaint. That is, until you really get into the guts of a phone book and discover that secret world of arcane information just waiting for you. Dialing your friend in Malta? The International Calling Codes pages will be of enormous help. It also tells you how many hours to add to get your call recipient’s local time. Liechtenstein, add nine hours. Azerbaijan, 11. Vatican City is six hours ahead… from anywhere. Hm, how’d they get that primo spot? They must know somebody…

The phone book’s Time Zone Maps have settled more than just a few arguments around our house. Months ago, my girlfriend and I were about to split up because I insisted that Manitoba, Canada was in the same time zone as Council Bluffs, Iowa. She had her suitcase packed and a taxi waiting when I produced page A22 of the ATT Real Yellow Pages. Nailed it! Now we need a dietician to settle our debate over whether “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” is, in fact, a kind of butter.

The writing has been on the wall, or the cover of the phone books, for years now. It doesn’t help that instead of one Yellow Pages there are now a half dozen competing phone books, causing merchants to simply give up on listing their business. And since we’re no longer using anyone’s “land line” there’s no point in looking up a home phone number. Unless you’re cold calling about carpet cleaning offers. That’s right, I mean you, Mr. Smith from Anytown Carpet Service.

For phone books to remain useful as something other than kiddy booster chairs, they’ll need to provide more information for a changing world. Four weeks ago, I received my first unsolicited sales call… on my cell phone. I was stunned and hurt. Who gave my cell phone number to these pirates? To add insult to injury, the call was an automated tape recording offering refinancing on a house I don’t own. It would be great if the phone book had a listing for organizations that hunt down junk telemarketers and stomp them, crushing their computer dialers and burning down their boiler room. We could call them The Avengers, although we should ask Diana Rigg about that. Or how about a quartet of phone hassle justice-fighters in mustard-colored jumpsuits… known as… The Yellow Pages?

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