Dick Zaker

There it sits on the doorstep, trying to hide its embarrassment in a plastic cover.

“Don’t look at me,” it seems to say, “I’m nothing like I used to be.”

Ye olde telephone book knows its time has passed, but it seems to straggle on. This emaciated specimen (or two, or even three) show up each year. The phone directory knows it’s sliding down the path of the VHS tape and the typewriter before it. Maybe it thinks it can muster a vinyl record-styled comeback.

But it’s not to be, thanks to the internet and the smartphone. See “paper road map” for an example of this. Your fingers now “do the walking” to the keypad of your cellular device.

Way back, when I was a kid, I would eagerly check the new book to see that our name was there and the number right (they were simpler times). Later on, when we were paying to have our number unlisted, I would check that the name was not there.

When my wife was a teenager, she and friends would leaf through the book for funny names. Someone told her there was a “Fuddpucker” in the Waukegan book. She scoffed, but when she checked it out, sure enough, there it was in the listings.

Later on, when we would travel, my wife and I would check the phonebooks for any Zakers in big cities. One, maybe two, but never much help in tracing the family tree.

In their day, phonebooks came in handy. “B.I.” (before internet), you’d page through the books to call a movie theater for show times, or shop around for the best tire price.

You’d have to careful in navigating the yellow pages, though. For instance, we’d all have to learn that looking for “doctors” got you nowhere – they were “physicians”. Look for “attorneys” and you’d have to flip back to “lawyers” (or vice versa).

I liked it when at least one of the books took to offering coupons. I may have saved $5 or $10 on a pizza or plumbing job.

Another improvement was when they included numbers and addresses from outside Decatur. Before that, if you needed a number from Mount Zion or Warrensburg, you had to deal with Directory Assistance (and you probably were charged for it). It proved handy, too, when they started putting governmental listings together up front.

The Herald & Review used to collect as many phone books as possible. The newspaper once boasted of covering all or parts of 22 counties, and its reporters needed to reach “officials” and normal people all over the place. The newspaper library staff (RIP, but such fine people) kept shelves and shelves of the books at the ready.

Perhaps, in a post-phone book world, we’ll have to phase out using the expression “He’s such a great speaker that could read the phone book. This probably will fall out of our language at the same time as “going on like a broken record” or “as irritating as nails on a chalkboard.”

In the interest of full disclosure: I may harbor a bit of animosity toward phone books over an incident years ago. My family was growing, and I was trying to earn a little extra cash by delivering the books. I loaded, I’m sure, 16 tons of them into the trunk of my Dodge Aries and hauled them around town. Came to find out the back of the car was riding a little low after that. After the repairs, I had more than used up what I earned on deliveries.

One of today’s phone books is acknowledging reality: It posts 14 pages of internet addresses right up front. There’s another one that calls itself “the original search engine.”

With all these changes, the only positive I can find is that I can finally tear a phone book in half. It used to be that you were quite a muscle man if you could rip a telephone directory into pieces. Now it’s to the point they are so small you could use them as a coaster on your table.

But why is it that I can’t break myself of the habit of stashing each newly arrived phone book into a drawer somewhere? I actually have a smartphone that I command to fetch a pizza restaurant’s number. There’s even one Mexican place I have in my Contacts, so I don't even have to punch in seven numbers.

Old habits die hard, I’m sure, but I’m making phonebook elimination a late-breaking resolution for 2019.

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Joe Trimmer is a Decatur historian.


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