Unlisted Number

Unlisted phones first appeared on February l, 1928, when permission to have them was granted by the Public Utilities Commission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Since then they have been springing up and multiplying all across the United States. In Los Angeles, 40 percent of all subscribers are unlisted; in Chicago, 30 percent, in Washington, D.C., 35 percent. Vinalhaven, Maine, has just over one percent and Ephrata, Pennsylvania, has less than that.

The telephone company says that unpublished numbers are expensive and defeat the purpose of directories, and people looking for other people find them a bloody bore. But in spite of this unlisted numbers spread like dandelions. During the past fifteen years they have quadrupled in Pennsylvania.

Ma Bell doesn’t ask people why they want unlisted numbers, but, once the company promises not to tell, it goes all out to keep the numbers sacrosanct. “Unlisted numbers are not listed,” one operator, forcing patience, told me. I persisted though, and found myself in a Ma Bell citadel of brick and cinder block where, not unlike the crown jewels in their bank vault in Tehran, the region’s unpublished numbers lie. The numbers, under surveillance by two persons at all times, are ringed by a phalanx of directory assistance operators in cubicles and swivel chairs. So as not to be suspected of peeking, I kept several feet away.

“Non-pub” has about a thousand calls a week, the chief operator told me, from persons who insist on getting through. A garage may call to say a customer was in such a hurry when he left his car to be serviced that he forgot to take out his dog. The dog won’t let anyone come near the car to move it and the garage demands the owner’s number. Another caller says he has to reach his old friend whom he hasn’t seen for a long time because he has to borrow some money. One indignant lady, when Non-pub asked her if the person she insisted on getting through to knew her personally, replied, “She ought to! She’s been living with my husband for a month.”

Non-pub turns them all down. In an extreme emergency they will notify the subscriber, but they never give the number. Not to credit bureaus. Not to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Not to the police.

“What if I’d found a wallet and wanted to return it?” I asked.

“We’d suggest you notify the authorities,” Non-pub said.

Who are the people who demand unpublished numbers and what are their reasons? Many fall into obvious categories. Persons in the limelight who would be besieged with calls. Film stars. Big politicos. People vulnerable to having favors asked.

The largest category, though, is single women. Miss Julia Hamp, a charming lady of seventy-six in Colorado Springs, has a listed number, and she can tell why other ladies have unlisted ones. Miss Hamp gets so many calls from a nearby military post, she told me, she has to rely on her live-in companion to pick up the phone.

The companion had intercepted one that morning with, “Who is this?”

“An old friend,” a vibrant male voice on the other end had answered.

“Listen,” Miss Hamp’s friend told him. “I know what you want. You want a date. I’d like to tell you Miss Hamp is old enough to be your grandmother.”

“Oh, my God,” said the voice on the other end. Then, less vibrantly, “Well, how old are you?”

The next largest group are persons who have had a crank call. Long ago, before the unpublished number, in the days of party lines, crank calls were made mostly by persons under twelve. “This is the telphone company testing. Will you step back three feet and whistle? Thank you. Now, three feet more. Thank you.” Or, “Do you keep Prince Albert in a can?” to the tobacconist. And, on his affirmative answer, “Well, let him out!”

Times have changed. Crank calls today are unrepeatable verbal onslaughts that victims seem unwilling to divulge. A doctor I know believes these are the result of our continuing sexual repression. He had the number 382-5968 (alphabetize it) hooked up to an answering device, he said. The machine averaged 300 calls a day, but the only result (or the only one that he divulged to me) was that 60 percent of the calls came from women.

And who else has unlisted numbers? I go on asking.

“Shrinks have them,” one friend said.

I reached a psychiatrist between patients at his hospital and he said yes, his number was unpublished. I asked him why and he told me that he deals with disturbed persons all day long and one night one of them called to say, “I know who you are and where you live and I’m going to get you.” it wasn’t his number, he said, as much as his address that he objected to having listed.

“While I have you,” I said, “what’s this whole thing about unpublished numbers?”

“Well, unpublished numbers are certainly symptomatic of the fears caused by urban living,” he told me. “I think it’s partly that and partly a rejection of the sensory overload. The instant communication of the telephone is too big a jump from the era of a card handed on a silver tray with ‘May I call at five?’ inscribed across one corner. It’s people feeling crowded. It’s too much unsolicited mail. Too much listening to some other person on the family’s TV program. It’s the longing for isolation that leads to living on an island or the anonymity of the foreign legionnaire. I guess you’d say unlisted numbers are symbolic of control.”

But who else has them? I go on asking.

Well, there are those who use the private number as a second line in order to keep one line free. And people avoiding creditors. And wives hiding from a jealous husband or a boyfriend. And vice versa. And people who aren’t all that much in demand but would like to create that impression: “You’ll find it hard to reach me. Here’s my private number.” And presto, by the simple act of inscribing seven digits on a paper cocktail napkin or the inside of a folding matchbox, you are included in the inner circle of those who know how to reach Harry Smith by phone.

I had gone on the theory that, because of their concentration in certain areas, unpublished numbers must be contagious. But one man I interviewed supplied me with the idea that they might be hereditary, like blue eyes or the tendency to be overweight. He had changed to an unpublished number fifteen years ago, he said, because of five daughters whose friends became a nuisance by calling day and night. The girls resented this at the time, he said, but now that they are grown up and married, they all have unlisted telephones themselves.

Unpublished numbers are not entirely an American phenomenon. In the USSR all numbers are unpublished for the reason that there isn’t any phone book. In Yugoslavia, on the other hand, you almost have to be Tito’s nephew to obtain one. In London, ex-directory numbers, as they are called, run to 14 percent of all the listings; but from Paris, the Ministères des Postes reports less than five.

And who else has unlisted numbers?

Well, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, representative of 800,000,000 people, for one. And Louise Nevelson, the sculptor, who is so serious about her privacy that she changes private numbers every few months to keep them that way. And Miss Klinghoffermandellfieldson of Philadelphia.

Miss K.’s non-listing is an unwilling one on her part, though. When she applied for the directory several years ago, she was refused a listing by Ma Bell on the basis that 1) the name ran to more than two lines, and 2) Klinghoffermandellfieldson was not her real name. Miss K. said it was. It was her religious name, she said. She complained to the Public Utilities Commission, which ruled against her. Miss K. sued. Ma Bell won.

The case of Miss K., I think, suggests a compromise to the unlisted: list by pseudonym.

“Call me when you come to Washington,” I say to a new acquaintance. “You’ll find me listed under Sebastian Bach.” Consider it as a favor and convenience to your friends.