You younger kids will have a hard time believing this, but back in the day, hardworking professional types such as myself kept all of our important phone numbers written on little squares of paper.
I kid you not, whippersnappers. We wrote those phone numbers in “pen” and kept them all together in a little “box-type thing” which we called a “Rolodex.”
I have no idea why we called it that, but dang if we didn’t sound cool when we spoke the word aloud.
“A phone number for Jim, you say? Hold on, friend, while I check my Rolodex.”
Makes me sound important, does it not? And I wasn’t just any yahoo with a Rolodex, I had one of those rotating models so I could flip through my important numbers just by spinning a dial.
“A number for Linwood, you say? Hold on, friend, while I flip through my Rolodex by spinning this here dial.”
Why, I’m so important, I must own a bank or something!
So, my Rolodex has been sitting on my desk since 1994. I remember buying it – after hiring me, the Sun Journal offered me one of their bland, non-dialed address keepers, but I said no! I’m going to go out and buy my own, one with a dial so that I’ll never forget how super important and possibly bank-owning I am.
That Rolodex saw a lot of action. I remember many a night frantically flipping through those numbers in search of the jail captain, the fire chief, the prison warden or Rudy, the guy who would deliver vodka straight to the newsroom.
When news was breaking and a reporter needed to round up his sources, straight to the Rolodex he went. If the reporter happened to be out on the road at the time, he’d have to scramble for a “phone booth” and dial a colleague at a nearby desk.
“Colleague!” the reporter would shout into the phone. “I need you to go over to my desk and find the number for Leon Snodgrass!”
“That the guy who delivers vodka?”
“Dammit, man! There’s no time for this. News is breaking and I need Snodgrass at once!”
It wasn’t an elegant system — not like you fancy pants with your smartphones and cloud-based everything — but it got the job done. Mostly. Sometimes it didn’t work so well if your colleague was napping or off on a bender somewhere and there was no one to trot over to your Rolodex.
For the most part, though, the humble Rolodex was your means to unraveling the mysteries of fire, crime, political intrigue and various rodent-involved dramas on the beat.
So, nostalgic for the old days (and somewhat desperate to get this week’s column off my plate) I plucked that faithful Rolodex off my desk and went a-flipping through time itself.
In the world of those little squares of paper, Michael Lajoie is still the fire chief in Lewiston, Bob Tiner is running things at the Auburn Police Department and John Lebel is captain at the Androscoggin County hoosegow.
I’ve got the name of the state’s leading UFO researcher in there, numbers for at least five known hookers (in 1994 anyway. They’re probably in politics now) and pager info for some top cops and prison investigators.
All pretty ordinary stuff so far, if a little outdated. But the deeper I venture into the yellowing universe of the Rolodex, the more it becomes a kind of snapshot of the world of Lewiston in the mid-1990s.
Here’s a guy named James C. who is described only as “key player in the Birch Street brawl” as if that’s his official job title.
Here are phone and pager numbers for a reporter named Stephanie who, in 1995, happened to be my fiancee.
There’s a card for “Mia,” whose only description is the one word “crack” and a note to only call after 8 p.m. There’s Lorraine whose position in this weird world of the Rolodex is described as “Knox Street.”
Particularly tantalizing is the listing for Susan with the single word “Polaroids” next to it. Sure glad I found that one before the investigation got underway.
Jill is described as “star witness.” A dude named Mike is listed as “Tire Iron,” which I assume is either his street name or his weapon of choice.
Along with the standard issue number cards, there are a few folded sheets of paper tucked into the Rolodex with a variety of messages scrawled upon them. “Call me,” declares one such note. “Good info for you re: city issues.” And is it very tempting to call that number today and say: “Whatcha got, friend?” as if 20-plus years haven’t passed since the note was scribbled.
A quarter of the people listed in my Rolodex are now dead. A few of them have since gone to prison, with at least one serving life for murder. Most are retired. Many are names I no longer recognize.
And yet for all the lost souls residing in the purgatory of my Rolodex, there are a few people there who are still plugging away and doing just fine, thank you very much.
Steve McCausland, listed as Maine State Police spokesman in 1994? His card is as valid today as it was back then. Same name, same number, same position.
Brian O’Malley, a humble patrol officer when I scribbled his number in my card file? Worked his way up to chief and still answers my calls most of the time. So does a guy named Ernie who was listed in my Rolodex as simply “downtown.” So does Lenny Sharon, whom I described in the ’90s as a “top attorney” and whom I’m going to call for legal representation once that business with the Polaroids becomes a problem.
With online address books keeping track of all of my phone numbers these days, I really have no use for this old Rolodex, yet I feel compelled to hang on to it the way you’d hang on to an old photo album or a childhood diary. I tell myself that I’m just being practical by leaving it right here on my desk.
I mean, where else am I going to find a number for a guy who’ll deliver hard liquor right to the newsroom? Assuming, of course, that Rudy still does that sort of thing.
God, I hope he does.
Only one way to find out, am I right?