I Left My Heart in 415 . . . Or 560

New area codes don't just mess up your stationery; they can cause an identity crisis

Back in the '60s, Ma Bell had a creative way of urging her captive customers to reach out and touch via long-distance.

She unveiled a series of television commercials in which the names of major cities were replaced by area codes. The result? Catchy jingles like "Moon Over Three-Oh-Five," or "Three-One-Two, Three-One-Two, That Toddlin' Town."

Who knows if it worked? Thirty-some years later, this child of the '60s doesn' t know more than the first line of "Moon Over Miami." But the commercial still rings true.

As for Chicago, I lived near that toddlin' town, but the area code for my childhood suburb has long since changed to 708. Those were simpler times, when long distance was expensive and the supply of area codes seemed limitless.

Today, the opposite is true. Long distance is cheaper and area codes are scarce.

The demand for area codes has virtually exploded over the past decade, and nowhere is that more apparent than in California. When area codes were first introduced in 1947, there were just three in the Golden State. Today, it boasts 22, including those slated to go into service in the near future. Ten of them serve parts of Los Angeles.

For decades, area codes gave us a geographic and psychological identity, their boundaries almost as rigid as state borders. And with the mandatory zero or one in the middle, they were easily identifiable and quite predictable.

Now, area code boundaries change more often than the borders of Eastern European nations. The zero or one requirement was disconnected back in 1995 when the supply of numbers ran out. So the newest area codes look like prefixes. And prefixes look like area codes. And customers are often confused, if not resentful.

Some of the anger is justified. Particularly hard hit are businesses, which must spring for the cost of new stationery, forms, advertising, and signs. If the area code planning is done correctly, there should be enough advance warning to keep those costs at a minimum.

But no amount of planning can anticipate the sense of belonging, which can cut both ways. In most cases, there's strong resentment to being assigned a new area code. But in Southern California not too long ago, the opposite occurred.

When Los Angeles added the 310 area code, Beverly Hills was to become a city divided. Most of the glitter city was scheduled to get the 310 code. But for technological reasons, a sliver was to remain in the 213 region.

The plan outraged the locals, who predicted dialing disaster for those who were to be digitally disenfranchised from the rest of the city.

When the rhetoric died, the original plan prevailed. Beverly Hills survived the electronic dividing line without any lasting effects. But woe be unto the person who ever suggests dividing the 90210 ZIP code.

Even though the boundaries may change, the psychological identification lingers. We may leave our hearts in 415, but its reach is shrinking. Those who know the way to 408 (San Jose) from San Francisco now have to travel through a new area code - 560.

And 212 may be a wonderful town, but its area code is no longer all encompassing. Remember, 718 (the Bronx) is up and cell phones get their very own area code, 917.

Why the sudden explosion? Blame it on the new conspicuous consumer of the '90s, and the need to stay constantly in touch. In the '70s and '80s, those with the need to flaunt their wealth, status, or importance tooled around in Beemers and probably wore gold chains, to boot.

Then technology reared its head. It began innocently enough with the advent of pagers. Remember when they were the almost exclusive, prestigious toy of doctors and lawyers who needed to be summoned on the golf course? Today, those pagers are clipped to the backpacks of kids returning to elementary school. And well-heeled executives are likely too important to be burdened by a tool of the masses. Instead, they've upgraded to the cell phone, which is rapidly moving toward pager-like availability, and have fax machines and multiple phone lines installed at home.

In the past, most families needed just one phone number. Indeed, most had but one phone in the house. Extensions were costly and had to be installed by Ma Bell's representative himself. (And in those days, the installer was always a he.) Many families didn't even have a private phone line. Party lines were common in rural areas as well as in cities.

As party lines withered, technology blossomed. And so did the need for phone numbers. Each of those pagers gobbled up a phone number. As did the fax machine. And the cell phone. And the modem.

Where most families once laid claim to perhaps two phone numbers, one for the home, one for the office, today it's not hard for a typical two-income family to be linked to as many as 10.

That type of consumption makes phone numbers disappear faster than Beanie Babies off store shelves.

The seemingly infinite supply of area codes has become a resource that needs to be conserved like water or air. And in the ever-squabbling phone industry, there are fights over who gets to manage that.

What does the future hold? Certainly more area codes. And the likelihood that we'll all soon be dialing area codes and phone numbers for every call, even if it's across the street. It's even possible two phones in the same house could have different area codes.

Forever gone will be the simple days of dialing only seven digits for local calls - just as the descriptive names of telephone exchanges, such as Pennsylvania 6-5000, have drifted into the answers of trivia questions.

And it'll also make it hard to come up with any new commercials encouraging long-distance calling. Randy Newman will never be asked to sing "I Love LA." Instead, he'd have to cram in "I Love 213, and 310, and 818, and 805," and on and on.

The "904 (Tallahassee) Lassie" has been relegated to 850. Thus far, the "316 (Wichita) Lineman" has remained exempt and unchanged.

But I bet he's carrying a cell phone.

* Michael Runzler has worked in the telecommunications industry in California for 13 years. His 510 area code, which used to be 415, will change to 925 in 1998.

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