Elegy for the phone book [Telecom]

Elegy for the phone book

By Dennis O'Toole

November 18, 2010

Since the late 1800s, the best way for a man to prove that he is worthy of the name has been to grip a phone book sideways and tear it in half. Women loved, and weaklings feared, those who could grasp a volume of the Chicago, Boston or San Francisco residential white pages and splice it like a napkin. For me and thousands of other mustachioed strongmen, tearing apart perfectly good phone books has been our way of life.

It's one that will soon die out. Everyone looks up numbers online, phone companies say, so there is no reason to continue making the residential white pages.

One after another, state governments have agreed. In just the past month, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida have decided to hang up the white pages. Later this month, Virginia state regulators may decide that white pages are no longer in service.

Do my telephone metaphors frighten you? Good. They are meant to.

The Marine Corps has made tearing apart a phone book the sole test for becoming one of the few, the proud. Green Beret candidates must tear apart six in less than 20 seconds. Navy Seals must do the same under water.

History is replete with notable phone-book ripping incidents.

John Dillinger broke out of a Crown Point, Ind., jail by tearing apart the bars of his cell. The bars, it later proved, had been made out of phone books.

Wilt Chamberlain shocked the basketball world by ripping apart 100 in a single game.

Neil Armstrong became the first man to tear apart a phone book on the moon.

These are just a few examples. I could also cite Richard Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech where he fended off corruption allegations by putting his fist through the Dallas white pages. Or, how the Beatles wowed the Ed Sullivan audience with their hit song, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand (and Tear up Your Phone Book)." And who can forget Ronald Reagan standing in Berlin and declaring, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall like I will now tear apart this phone book!"

Perhaps, in our decadent age of online communication and highly sugared, caffeinated malt liquor, a new test of manliness will emerge to replace wanton phone book destruction. One will have to. Because quite soon, life in a world without phone books will tear the hearts of real men in half.

Dennis O'Toole is a writer and performer in Chicago.

Copyright 2010, Chicago Tribune

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