Area codes: calling me back to Clearwater, Florida
    Photo by plenty.r. on Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Addresses are hard to pin down. In the past year, I've lived at four of them. And now I’m soon to move yet again. I have an existential crisis every time I have to fill out an application; I’m faced with a blank box, waiting for me to fill in the numbers and street names that determine my home. But where I live will only be where I live for about a week, before moving back to a dorm to teach at a camp and finally to New York. I feel inclined to just put down the address that I know will always be there, the one to which I don't know when I'll return next, but know that it waits far away in my hometown. But after moving beyond that anxious moment in the application, of deciding where I really live, comes question I never think twice about answering: phone number.

    With the advent of cell phones, it became possible for a phone number to follow you around no matter where you were. No longer were you tied to a landline that changed with the area you were living. Cell phones, the great, nebulous world of a phone that can move around the country, made it possible to bring some of home with me, an identifier of where I came from; those first three numbers that ground me to where I’m from.

    Area codes were introduced to phone numbers in 1947. My home state of Florida had just one number, 305. At the time, The North American Numbering Plan, which was instituted and created by AT&T, used the numbers as signifiers. The zero in the middle of Florida’s area code meant that it was the only number for the state. Eventually this changed, corresponding with population growth and increasing ubiquity of technology – including an increase in cell phone ownership.

    Even within my lifetime, my area code changed. Until 1998, I lived within the confines of 813. And when it came time to split the counties, there was a bit of frustration from adults, but for me it was just a new number to memorize.

    Memorizing isn't hard when it's the number that surrounds you. 727 was everywhere. Every number you called began with those three numbers, so much that eventually, it wasn't even necessary to use it.

    When I first came to Northwestern, my cell phone contact list filled with 734s, 717s, 513s, 916es, 914s. Random mixes of numbers that meant nothing to me except that they were from different places. I felt proud to know all of these people from vastly different places, big cities – those that had area codes that were historically easiest to dial on a rotary phone – to small towns with area codes that spanned most of the state.

    It took a long time for me to come across another 727. But there’s a newfound, brief and familiar joy in finding someone else who shares what was once ubiquitous, that familiar combination of numbers. I remember chancing on sources who recognized my 727 and asked me about Florida, sharing stories of their own, and when I see 847 show up on my caller ID, I’ve grown to claim it as my own, sharing my stories of Evanston.

    When I move far away from 847 and 312 and 773, I’ll have a new address, a new zip code, amounting to numbers that don’t mean anything to me. New York is a crowded city, it’s busy, stressful, full of people from anywhere and everywhere, but all are tied to that phone number.

    And though I’ll have to tell people to call me at my office number, which starts with 212, finding that familiarity, and knowing my own number will follow me from Clearwater to Evanston to New York and wherever else I might end up, reminds me how important it is to remember where we’ve come from. No matter how far we’ve traveled, we’ve gone far. And we will go far, and we’ll never be far from where we’re from.


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