15 August 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project



They took away our Murrayhills,
They took away our Sycamores,
They took away Trafalgar and State,
They took away our Plaza, our Yukon, our Michigan,
And left us with 47329768,
(Remember Susquehanna)

With a hi ho 370,
And a merry 54422,
Who said it's cumbersome,
See the nice number some,
Univac machine's gone and picked out for you.

It wasn't all that long ago that my telephone "number" had an "exchange."  Instead of the 10-digit numbers we find ourselves blessed with today (not counting the "1" prefix), I had a 5-digit number, with an alphabetic prefix of two letters.  Those two letters were derived from the name of the exchange, which had deep historical significance, in many cases predating the invention of the telephone.

Whether you agree with Ned Numeral that the loss of the exchange was a good thing, or subscribe to the Frebergian view expressed in the lyrics quoted here, you must agree that the exchange names were quaint, to say the least!   As I recall, my dad's office was a "TRafalgar 4."  When I was in high school in NYC, the exchanges defined neighborhoods and one could place an acquaintance based on this alone.  But change came, slowly, ponderously, and inevitably.  The first evidence I had was when I went away to college and got my own telephone, with my own number and, of course, its exchange.  My number, as I recall was AR3-1940.  But, mysteriously, I was unable to find the actual name of the exchange in the telephone book.  Now, college students are nothing if not resourceful.  Oh, OK, that and naive.  And irritating and obnoxious*.   But forget all that.  We're talking resourceful here.  Curious as to what my exchange was, I confronted Authority:  I dialed "O" for operator on the telephone and asked her.  I can't quote her exactly, but it was close to "I don't know."  Clearly research was necessary.

Even then and who am I kidding?  Of course it was that long ago, maybe longer I wasn't keen on research.  I had already called the operator, hadn't I?  I continued my desultory inquiries about the telephone exchange name.  By virtue of certain experiments with the telephone network I had access to more than the usual complement of telco employees, and would rarely fail to put them to the question when opportunity allowed.  And yet I was never proffered a definitive answer.  I would love to report that in a sudden epiphany the name was revealed to me, perhaps scribbled on the wall of the local pizzeria.  But no; if there was indeed a name, it's lost in the yellow pages of time.

Unwilling to leave the problem unresolved, and lacking the persistence of my friend Ozzie, who managed to have the Cape Canaveral area code changed to "321<lift off>," I made a decision: Henceforth, the exchange for AR3-1940 would be "ARbitrary."  So mote it be.

They took away our Lexingtons,
They took away our Delawares,
They came and got Tuxedo and State,
They swiped ElDorado, and Judson, and Trinity,
And left us with 47329768,
(Blessings on the telephone company)

With a hi ho 370,
And a merry 54433,
Goodbye dear old prefix,
Hello 736,
Oh, they're a million laughs down at AT&T.
1957 Stan Freberg, so far as I know.

* And obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent.  And young.  (I'm missing a Jefferson Starship concert tonight due to another obligation.  Sigh.)

Richard Factor