The 411 service is being discontinued by AT&T for its digital landline customers. People with old-style landlines can still dial 411, but there are only about 147 of those left in the country, most of them used by people who pay for groceries with a check.
"411," you ask. "Is that what I call to complain about my neighbor?"
Well, it depends. Are they not shoveling their sidewalk, or have they crashed their car into your house? It's 311 for the first, 911 for the second.
"What if it's both?"
Then you add the two and call 12-22. But back to 411. It's the number people used to call to get a phone number. Once upon a time you could ask an operator to look up a number. Then there would be silence, followed by the operator asking if you would hold for the information. Well, yes, I've gone this far, I do believe I will hold. Then a robot voice would tell you the number and offer to connect you for a small fee if you couldn't muster the physical strength to dial it yourself. All those 9's! Your hand would cramp up.
AT&T now advises people to look up things on the internet. But it seems like most of the "white pages" have been taken over by a bewildering number of sites that want you to sign up and pay money. "We found 437 John Smiths! Sign up now for a free trial to get phone numbers, addresses, arrest records, blood type, credit score, cola preferences and more!" What? I just want to call him, I don't want to know his parole status.
In the old days of 411, it seemed as if the operators had great power, access to vast databases.
"Yes, I'd like the number for John Smith, New York."
"One minute, puh-leasuh ... I have niy-un hundred and thirty-seven John Smiths in New York City. Could you be more specific?"
"Around 5-foot-10, walks with a slight limp, prefers Cezanne to Monet?"
"One minute ... was that Monet or Manet? I have a John Smith on Astor Place and another on Park Avenue, who prefers Manet."
"He favors a double-Windsor tie knot."
"I will put you through to Astor Place. Thank you for using AT&T."
The other day while in an antique shop with Daughter, we came across a 1983 Minneapolis phone book, and it was a revelation for her. Not just because they printed every phone number in town, but they listed the addresses as well. Why was that anyone's business?
Good point, in retrospect. Well, you might have to mail them a letter. We used to do that. If your message was too long to wrap around a pigeon's leg, we wrote a letter. We weren't like your generation, which carries around a phone all the time but seems to regard talking on it as an act of terrifying intimacy.
I looked up my old number, and it felt vaguely familiar, like seeing a picture in which you're wearing a coat you wore all the time but had forgotten.
I used to be a walking Rolodex of phone numbers. Now I don't think I know any numbers at all, just names I tell my phone to ring. If I want to find a number, I don't know whom to call.
I suppose I could call 411 to ask the number for directory assistance, but, well, you know. Dee-dee-Dee! The era you have called is no longer in service. Please make a note of it.