Ten-Digit Dialing Awaits Us

I arrived in Eugene the same day that the 503 area code left. If I wanted to embody either Daniel Boone or Mark Twain, I would begin planning my departure from the area in March, 2010, but don’t get your hopes up.

Until August 1, 1995, the state of Oregon shared a single area code. Dialing seven digits back then would connect a Portlander with somebody in Ashland. We were all one. But there were too many of us being one, or too many of us wanted to be one more than once — separate numbers for fax machines were gobbling up numbers faster than they could be doled out.

The summer of ’95 is remembered fondly by all the printers of business cards throughout eastern, central, and southern Oregon. The Portland-Salem corridor kept the original 503 area code, and all other Oregonians were welcomed into the new 541 family.

Now we’re running out of numbers again, so a new area code has become necessary to accommodate all the requests. It’s not fax machines this time. It’s children with their own phones, and so their own numbers. I know quite a few parents who would welcome the return of “party line” phones to share with their teenagers, but none of them serve on the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

In 1995, that commission determined that it would be better to ask people to change numbers once, rather than ask them to dial ten digits from now on every time they called a neighbor. This time, the commission is choosing differently. The new area code (458) will be an overlay on the area currently served by 541. (Portlanders adapted to a 971 overlay several years ago.) In 2010, spring will arrive and 7-digit dialing will depart.

I grew up when people couldn’t be trusted to remember more than five digits. My phone number growing up was “TWinbrook 4-6277,” which was supposed to be more memorable than 894-6277. It must have worked, since I’ve had about a hundred numbers since, but remember almost none of them.

We were expected to remember only five digits, but soon we’ll have to remember twice as many. Does anyone believe we’re twice as smart as we were? Not at all. Most young people I know don’t know any phone numbers at all. They are all programmed into their cell phones.

Dialing ten digits may not be a physical hassle, but it does invite a new tribalism. A caste system will surely develop, as 541 “natives” will look down on 458 “newcomers.” People with 541 in front of their numbers will be seen as protectors of “heritage” issues, but not to be trusted for high-tech solutions using anything that may be deemed “new-fangled.” 458-ers will be viewed as carpetbaggers or misfits, unrooted by the finer things in life, probably younger, probably renters, probably beer-drinkers. 458 will be given to all comers, a symbol of populism. 541 will be reserved for insiders, fixers, operators, Chardonnay-sippers. Congressional Representative Peter Defazio will have working lines with both codes.

Just what we need: another way to be divided. We are all two.

I’ve been staying one step ahead of ten-digit dialing since the early-90s. I left Chicago before 773 was added to 312. I left Connecticut before 203 was joined by 860. But my luck may be up this time. Daniel Boone stayed in a place until he could see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. He took that as the celestial signal it was time to move on.

Mark Twain was born the year that Halley’s Comet gave the world a celestial sign as it passed. He died the year it came next, insisting he had come in with the comet, so he may as well leave with it. Area codes seem to be rough approximates of such celestial signs in modern life. I came in with 541, but now here comes 458. Just the same, I think I’ll stay.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes for this page each Friday and blogs occasionally.