Baltimore Glimpses: by the numbers

March 25, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

STARTING MAY 1, according to Bell Atlantic, we will need to dial three more numbers preceding the local phone number. So to call across town for a pizza you will dial 10 numbers!

Before 1952, when you phoned for pizza, you didn't dial at all. You picked up the receiver and an operator, in a voice so sweet it reminded you of your mother asking you to drink your milk and eat your cookies, asked, ''Number, please?'' You responded, for example, ''Belmont 1234,'' and that was it. Next thing, you're ordering one all-veggie and two with onions and pepperoni.

These operators appeared to be saints, trained to cater to your every telephone need; it seemed that their only mission in life was to get your call through quickly. An operator we knew, Mary Hart, told us, ''It was all very warm, very personal. We had ladies call us every morning and say something like, 'I live alone and I just want to make sure you are there, in case I need you.' One lady called, in pain, 'Get me to a hospital. I'm in hard labor.' I got her to a hospital.''

In those days, the name of the exchange became identified with the neighborhood using it. For example, when you called someone with a ''Tuxedo'' or a ''Hopkins'' exchange, you thought Guilford, Homeland, big houses, old money. ''Orleans'' and ''Eastern'' made you think of Highlandtown, East Baltimore and blue-collar.

''Mohawk'' meant Mt. Washington and academics. ''Vernon,'' ''Saratoga'' and ''Plaza'' told you were going to talk to someone in a downtown office or store. ''Pennsylvania'' meant the Pennsylvania Avenue's African-American neighborhood. ''Madison'' and ''Lafayette'' became synonymous with Bolton Hill,'' ''Idlewood'' for the York and Belair Road corridor.

''University'' meant the neighborhoods surrounding the Johns Hopkins University campus. ''Forest'' meant the Forest Park neighborhood, and ''Hamilton'' meant Hamilton. And any Baltimorean of a certain age can connect these exchanges to the neighborhoods they belong to: Gilmor, Wilkins, Rogers, Curtis, Edmondson.

There was a downside to the personal-operator system, cozy as it was. The operators being human beings, could strike and shut the system down. And on Tuesday, January 11, 1946, they did, and they put Baltimore into chaos. Calls could not come into the city, nor go out. Businesses collapsed; teen-agers were struck dumb; the sick and disabled, friends and husbands, wives and lovers, all pleaded for the operators to come back. Two days after they walked out they walked back in, sat down at their switchboards, and picked up their old routine:

''Number, please . . .''

In the early 1950s those lovely ladies became victims of technology. ''Forest,'' for example, became ''FO 7,'' the ''7'' corresponding to the seventh hole on the rotary dial, where the ''R'' in ''Forest'' was. That system, too, came to an end in the 1960s, so that the neighborhood-as-exchange was eliminated entirely: FO 7-1234 became ''367-1234.''

Not all Baltimoreans accepted the dial system. One Charles Kramer irately wrote the C&P telephone Co. ''You are hereby notified that under no conditions or circumstances whatsoever is your company to put a dial phone in my house.'' Another appealed to the Public Service Commission: ''A dial phone is not wanted and I will not tolerate it.''

Even The Sun editorialized derisively about the dial: ''It is a little merry-go-round full of mixed numbers and letters that look like something discovered in the ruins of the ancient Temple of Diana.''

But there is no stopping progress. From May 1 of this year, the old ''Forest 1234,'' now 367-1234, becomes a 10-number 410-367-1234.

If you think the phone system has gone number-wacky, look at the hypertrophy of the zip code. The first codes for mail were introduced during World War II. Baltimore (like all cities) was broken into ''postal zones'' -- if you lived in, say, Catonsville, your address became ''Baltimore, 28, Md.''

In 1963 the Post Office added three numbers to precede the numbers, plus the two-letter state abbreviation. Catonsville became ''Baltimore, MD 21228.'' Only a few years ago the Post Office added four numbers to the end of those five numbers. A Catonsville address is now ''21228-4502.''

Speaking of communications, there is in Baltimore lore the story of Richard Thompson, who in the 1920s used same-day mail delivery to beat both the telephone and the regular mail. His secret? He knew the speed and the workings of Baltimore's Streetcar (traveling) Post Office, which until 1929 served most Baltimore neighborhoods.

The postal clerk aboard the Towson-Catonsville line was Norman Yingling. He told us, ''We'd pick up mail at the mail boxes along the route, starting out early in the morning and delivering to the various post offices along the same route. With two and three deliveries a day, same-day delivery was assured.''

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