I wrote a piece 32 years ago about a trip my father and I made to the Soviet Union in its final days. It was before we knew all that much about what went on behind the Iron Curtain (remember that term?), a time when we still had curiosity about the rest of the world. Books were printed in massive amounts. Luxuries were lavished on state officials. But I will remember most that there were no phone books in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or anywhere in the vast nation.
I’ve kept some of my phone books. They’re a helpful reference tool for those of a certain age, those who haven’t switched completely to cellular service.
There’s a scene in Steve Martin’s first film, “The Jerk,” in which the lead character excitedly reads his name in the Los Angeles phone book and dances with joy (that dance motif proves challenging these days, but that’s another story). I remember the same feeling after moving to New York City, and also from those days when parts of the Catskills would show up in two and sometimes three separate phone books in separate counties and regions.
Nowadays, we must build our own world of contacts. Unless friends share the people they know, we all live on little islands of our own. Or go whole-hog into Facebook, where limits rule even there. All’s for sale, which is why I ended up leaving their universe.
It’s getting harder to reach people, and to be reached. We inhabit curated worlds.
Let your fingers do the walking, as the old phone-book ads used to put it? No longer. In this brave new world corporations have taken over everything, and monopoly’s become naught but the name of a game.
We’re all but cogs in others’ machines.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.