If you want to reach Dan Shanahan at Hampden Moving & Storage, and no one is free to answer the phone there, you get the usual automated response, which asks you to type in his last name to get his extension. That's 74262426.
Doing that, it might strike you that matching numbers to letters isn't quite as tedious as it once was, and most likely text messaging is the reason why, or automated phone directories - or even just the constant, unrelenting presence of a phone in your life. Whatever. Mr. 74262426 is easy to find, especially if you're doing it on a cell phone and have achieved some measure of thumb-adroitness in the number-letter match-ups.
This is why the time is ripe to bring back a pleasant touch from years gone by. Mr. Shanahan calls it "a feel-good - warm and fuzzy." He also calls it "an icon of the past" - but there's no reason it can't be a marker for the future, as well. You know the letters. Why not use them?
Though Hampden Moving & Storage is no longer in Hampden - it used to be on the west side of Falls Road, just above 36th Street - its phone number is still there. BElmont 5-0600. You can see it on the company's vans, and on its Web site, too. Mr. Shanahan, the company's vice president and general manager, sees it as a bit of marketable nostalgia, because a surprising number of people in Baltimore fondly remember the old Hampden jingle, which goes back to the days when phone "numbers" used to start with names. But what would happen if everyone in the 235 exchange started using BElmont 5 again? It wouldn't be so hard.
What is a phone number, anyway? It's someone's identity; it says, "This is how to get through to me." It's more than a series of integers, just as Mr. Shanahan is more than 74262426. Now the digital revolution has made it easier to do away with some of the digits, because it has made everyone so familiar with the phone keypad. Look up from your texting for a moment, and it will occur to you that someday plain old numbers will seem as out of style as a dial-up connection.
So what is this BElmont? It comes from the time when every exchange had a name and every phone number began with its first two letters (except in Philadelphia, where they often used THRee). The phone company had a standard (though not ironclad) list of approved names. Some were heroic: TRojan, ULysses, VIking. Some were historic: FRanklin, LAfayette, PErshing. There was EMpire, PYramid, YUkon. And CYpress, HEmlock, JUniper. At opposite ends of the solar system, there was MErcury and there was NEptune, but they both corresponded to the same number: 63.
The phone company - and that's what it was then, the phone company - decided to move to all-number phone numbers in the 1960s. Numbers seemed sleek and forward-looking- as efficient as a punch card - and SHadyside and IVanhoe and the rest were as musty as antimacassars. Also, numbers allowed the use of 1 and 0, which don't have letters associated with them.
A lot of people were upset. They liked the association with FLanders and UNderhill and TUxedo and SAratoga. Interestingly, the heart of the resistance was in America's most space-agey state: California. The Anti-Digit Dialing League was formed in San Francisco in July 1962. One of its early recruits told Time magazine, "Give me LIberty or take the blinking phone out."
LIberty lapsed in the end, of course. But it didn't take long for people to find ways around Ma Bell's obsessive numerology. Businesses and organizations figured out they could get phones that would advertise whole phrases, of the 1-800-REDCROSS variety. Then a certain retro tone moved in; restaurants and bands around the country borrowed old exchange names, and about five years ago, Hampden Moving & Storage went a step further.
Now's the time to go all the way, and put the color back into your phone life. And be creative. If you don't like BElmont 5, how about AFfable 5? Or CD-rom 5? ADipose 5? AEronautic 5? BEelzebub 5? They're all the same. So craft your own, and let your phone number say something - about 968.