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Get Me PEnnsylvania 6-5000

Telecom: A modest effort is underway to revive the golden age of descriptive telephone exchange names.

By DANIEL AKST

Monday, July 21, 1997
I am a son of New York and proud of it, but in truth I grew up in Oregon--ORegon 4, I think, or maybe ORegon 5, but certainly ORegon, for that was the bucolic Manhattan telephone exchange in which, for a while, we lived.
     New York City, like most of the country, was divided into a variety of these, and they could say as much about you as your accent, which believe me said plenty. ORegon was, well, the wilderness. BUtterfield 8, by contrast, was the much tonier telecommunications precinct immortalized by John O'Hara and later Elizabeth Taylor. MUrray Hill was pretty good too, although there was one of these in New Jersey as well.
     Something like 30 years ago, telephone exchange names went the way of the Pony Express, stamped out by--what? Advancing technology? Ma Bell's tin ear in her old age? Those were factors, of course, but the real reason, to my mind, was democracy.
     Ours is a system that inevitably provides for the great mass of Americans what initially is the province of the rich, whether divorce or auto ownership or Internet access. Exchange names that worked fine in an ocean-bound, monolingual, operator-assisted society didn't work well when absolutely everybody had to have a telephone. With the need to provide more and more numbers, and with the old-fashioned local exchanges consolidated, romantic-sounding phone prefixes like YUkon, KLondike and SWinburne were bulldozed to make way for a more functional, if antiseptic, digital purity.
     But were those exchange names really so untenable?
     Robert Crowe and Mark Cuccia think not. Crowe is a 39-year-old computer consultant who grew up in SYcamore 4 (that's Pasadena, to the uninitiated), and he wants to bring back the golden age of descriptive telephone numbers.
     "Exchange names helped foster a sense of place and community, in the same way that cities do," he writes. "They're also a link to our more analog past, which is fast slipping away."

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     In furtherance of this glorious ideal, Crowe runs the Telephone Exchange Name Project on the Internet, at http://www.ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html, where he gathers historical exchange names and provides a grid of numbers and the exchanges that were used in various cities during the salad days of "characterful" phone listings.
     Crowe says he is dumbfounded by the enormous response from visitors to his site, who are invited to e-mail him with any exchange names he might not know about. Many do, but many others simply write to say how the site reminded them of an incident from childhood, or a long-ago relative.
     Others have contributed historical information (or misinformation, I suppose). One noted that exchange names often came from the name of the street on which the local telephone exchange was built. Another explained the origins of the GAspee exchange. (It was a British battleship burned by smugglers, and gave its name to a region of Rhode Island.)
     At Pacific Bell, the first person who fielded my inquiry about all this was 25, and her voice contained just the right note of wary indulgence, as if I were asking about discounts for Spanish-American War veterans. No doubt rolling her unbearably youthful eyes, she passed me along to a Pacific Bell spokesman of a certain age.
     "WAlnut 9!" said Ho Blair triumphantly, recalling his childhood exchange. "That was in Akron, Ohio. Isn't this fun?" We wallowed in nostalgia for a minute--Blair likened exchanges to the madeleine in Proust that brings back a flood of memories--before he gave me what I needed, which was confirmation that PacBell wouldn't dream of going back to a mix of letters and numbers.
     For one thing, combinations like 97 don't lend themselves readily to pronounceable names, and besides, alphanumeric phone numbers cause all sorts of problems internationally. On the other hand, Blair said, there's nothing to stop folks from giving out their own numbers in any form they want.
     This is easier nowadays, thanks to Cuccia, who keeps accounts at Tulane University Law Library but really seems to live for phone company lore, and who provided Crowe with a list of "suggested" exchanges from AT&T, circa 1955. This wonderful document, also on Crowe's Web site, enables anyone to locate a semiofficial exchange name for sprucing up stationery, invitations, etc., even if the original exchange corresponding to your prefix isn't known.
     Frenetically mobile Americans may find adopting one of these exchange names nearly irresistible, since it makes us look like we've been in the same place forever. Besides, why shouldn't the luscious patina that derives from permanence and class be as democratically available as tube socks and big-screen TV?
     The names themselves are often deliciously '50s. Like real estate developments, they tend toward the WASPy or the pastoral; nobody seems to have had a phone number beginning with BErnstein, GOmez or SLagheap.
     Although I have spent the last couple of years dodging regular work, I confess that I would be sorely tempted by the job of doling out exchange names in some enlightened effort to inject character into the nation's phone numbers. I imagine designating Berkeley as SAnctimony 5. The local fast-food strip could become ADipose 8.
     Why should parts of Los Angeles not be LOtus? How can Seattle get through another day without, say, BIrkenstock 6 or LAtte 2? I vow to set aside GUru for Marin County; MOribund for Utica, N.Y.; POodle for Beverly Hills; and, in general, rule justly and without special favors.

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     Until that day, as Crowe and Cuccia point out, each of us can choose any exchange name that fits our number. As a conventional sort with average social-climbing instincts, I'll probably adopt YOrk 9, but most Americans are not such mindless conformists. Since there are no longer any official exchange names, what's to stop us from making up any exchange that suits our number--and ourselves? Why not SMoothie 4 or BUddhist 8 or FIduciary 3?
     To James E. Katz, who has the good fortune to be a telephone sociologist at Bellcore, the soon-to-be-lopped-off research arm of the Baby Bells (it's about to be sold), this nostalgia for exchange names reflects the age-old tension between our longing for community and our radical individualism, since rather than any large-scale return to exchange names, individual vanity numbers are probably the coming thing.
     Instead of a pair of letters that we share with others in our immediate neighborhood and that conveys where we live as well as, by extension, who were are, we'll get to pick a number that spells out something in letters, just as people do with vanity license plates.
     Those who prefer not to wait can visit one of several cabalistic Internet sites that will figure this out for you. Start at http://www.yahoo.com; under Reference, choose Phone Numbers, and you'll see several sites that allow you to type in a number and find out what it spells, or type in some words and find all the telephone numerical equivalents.
     Get Pacific Bell to assign you this number and then baffle everyone you know by telling them your number is (310) AEROBIC or some such.
     Of course, it's easy to carry this sort of thing too far. Cuccia, for instance, likes to give his address as New Orleans 28, La. Personally, I love those old delivery zone codes, but the Postal Service seems to have enough trouble as it is. Remember, they don't call it snail mail for nothing.

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Special to The Times; Daniel Akst Is the Author of "St. Burl's Obituary," a Novel
Copyright Los Angeles Times