THE BLOG
11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nostalgia: Telephone Exchanges in Old New York

When I first started making phone calls in the fifties, anyone could tell where a friend lived by the telephone exchange office in which actual telephone operators sat--like Lily Tomlin as her iconic comic character, Ernestine.

My family was Endicott 2. We lived on the Upper West Side across from the Museum of Natural History. Other friends were Rhinelander 4--the Upper East Side in the seventies. Butterfield was more exotic. It meant downtown East Side--where "kept women" or prostitutes might live. John O'Hara used it for the title of a novel about a call girl called Gloria Wandrous, Butterfield 8. Elizabeth Taylor played Gloria in the popular movie--considered racy in its time.

After the movie came out, you might want to move from Endicott 2 to Butterfield 8--just to be glamorous and sexy. However, there was no BUtterfield 8. O'Hara made that up. The exchange was really MUrray Hill.

I wrote about my nostalgia for old telephone exchanges once before, in the New
York Times
, and a reader responded: "Erica Jong is not alone in her nostalgia for New York's distinctive old telephone exchanges. In 1952 I met the man who later became my husband. His apartment was in Manhattan, mine was in Brooklyn. Over the past 40 years we have lived in five states and have had many phone numbers, but none could compare with the mysterious inevitability of our original ones. His was Audubon, and mine was Nightingale." SANDRA BERLSTEIN Manhattan. [A version of this letter appeared in print on Sunday, January 30, 1994.]

So, telephone exchanges could be romantic or racy--and they could predict endless love. What a falling off was there when we all were assigned numbers like 646 or 212 or 917. I understand there were even protests from clients about losing 212. This only goes to show how nostalgic and status conscious people are. Telephone Exchanges existed from 1910 to 1970. No wonder we missed them. They were part of our youth and our parents'.

212 has been used as a restaurant name (Upper East Side) and will doubtless be a movie or TV series someday. 646 reeks of nouveau arriviste. 917 is cellular. And 212--well there is only one 212.

I for one hate to have to remember 10 digit numbers--and for friends and colleagues abroad lengthy prefixes, which keep changing.

I used to be able to call friends in Venice, Italy with a simple 011-39-41 and 5 digits. Now I can never remember if it is 41 or 041 or whether the number has been normalized to 10 digits. The sequence depends on whether I'm in Europe or America. But. of course, we all have automatic dialers now--so we can't remember any numbers--friend or foe. And the prefixes change when we travel--which is irritating. We are constantly reprogramming our supposedly convenient devices. Or having helpers do it.

London is 011-44-207 from the USA but from Paris it's 001-44-207 et cetera. Annoying because so close. Sometimes I forget where I am and misdial. And the damned memory in my devices can lead me astray. I want 001 and it dials 011. The simple + should help but it doesn't always.

How mnemonic it was to have Audubon and Academy and Nightingale, Hunter 2 in Great Neck and Tremont 2 in the Bronx. There was Plaza 1, 2, 4 etc. and you could visualize your friend in Great Neck or the Bronx or the lower East Side--ORchard whatever for Orchard Street. Villagers were Spring 2. And my high school boyfriend was TRemont something. I am ashamed not to be able to remember the digit.

Now New York City is full of people from ELsewhere who remember none of this because they were born in the Age of Numerals. I am talking to you, darling daughter, born in 1978.

Bring back the old exchanges--and let's invent some new ones while we're at it. Let's name them after NY writers. GInsberg for the East Village. And WH for the West Village (after Auden). We could have PO (for Poe) in Upper Manhattan and ME for Herman Melville in Lower Manhattan. Let's not forget GE for Gershwin on Riverside Drive. And HA for Larry Hart who famously sang: "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too . . .

Amen.