Just the Other Day: The New Phone Book

“The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!” (Navin R. Johnson, The Jerk, 1979.) On the driveway at the gas station, he couldn’t stifle his elation. “Page seventy-three. Johnson, Navin R. I’m somebody now!”


I picked up the new Dex, Northland Directory, that came in the mail last Friday. I did my very best to impersonate Steve Martin as I danced around the kitchen. Our dog, June and our cat, Edgar Allen, watched with confused amusement.


I put on my reading glasses and thumbed rapidly through the pages, landing on page fifty-six. “Right there!” I exclaimed, pointing sharply with my index finger, “Right there, between Palaszzari and Palfe! That’s where my name should be!”


Should be? It seems I’m not in this addition of the phone book. How disappointing.


The arrival of the new phone book was always an exciting day for people. My first recollection of its arrival was when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin. We had a phone upstairs, one in the kitchen and another in the basement, so we got three copies of the directory.  It was a big, thick book – even bigger than the Sears Catalog. I opened it and scrolled through the pages until I found it; Palen, Daniel C. 4304 Hegg Ave. 222-1038. I found comfort and pleasure in that.

When we moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, I was still living at home. We got four copies of the directory. Back then, only the phone company could install a phone, so they knew we had a phone on each floor of the house and one in the barn. (Dad didn’t like walking all the way to the house when a call was for him.) When the new phone book came, I looked through it right away. There it was: Palen, Daniel C. RR#5. 683-1776. Again, I was thrilled to see that and dreamed of a day when I would have my own listing in the book.


When I moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment with my brother, the new phone book arrived. Keep in mind, I moved out the same year the famous hit movie, The Jerk, was released. Prepared to dance and celebrate, I immediately flipped through the pages, looking for my name – I’m sure that’s what everyone did as soon as the new phone book arrived. I found it: “Palen, J. Gerard. 224 East Maple St. 684-5310.” I was puzzled. “What? That’s my number and that is our address, but where’s my name?”


With the book tucked into the front of my pants like a pistol, I got on my motorcycle. I drove to the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company at the corner of Fourth and Washington Streets. I was going to show them their error and get some answers. Mary Ann, the clerk, explained, “Since the account is in your brother’s name, it’s listed in his name in the directory.”  She went on to tell me I could have the number published in my name also, but it would cost fifty-cents per month for an additional listing.


Mary Ann told me, “Your name will appear in the new directory, which will be published next spring.” I protested, why the long wait? For that kind of money, I envisioned the phone company would gather up all the old books and give everyone a new book that included my name. She offered, “Your information will be available through Directory Assistance starting next month.”  That made me feel a little better, but it’s not the same as seeing your name in the phone book.


The following spring, I whipped through the pages faster than ever. “The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!” My cat, who bore the same name as Navin’s dog in the movie, woke up from her nap on the couch and watched me as if I had totally lost it. “There it is,” I told her, pointing to the page, “Palen, Thomas A. 310 North Street. 684-5310.” I danced about the living room, joyously proclaiming, “I am somebody now!” Aloof to my excitement, the cat tucked her head back into her curled-up position and resumed her nap.


Cell phones and the internet have diminished what was once one of the most exciting days of the year. Not having a landline, my name wasn’t going to be listed in the new Northland Directory. With lack of enthusiasm, I dropped the book on the bench at the kitchen table. It bounced off and fell onto the floor, landing in an open position.


June and Edgar Allen, rushed with curiosity to the open publication. Maybe they thought it was something to eat. Maybe they were looking up the number for 911 to report a crazy man in their kitchen. Or, maybe they were going to look for their names. It’s what everyone does when the new phone book arrives.


I laughed over a vision appearing in my mind; the two of them dancing on their back feet, holding each other’s paws while chanting, “The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here.”