What's become of "the little black book"? Old movies glorified its slightly salacious reputation. Men referred to it with a ribald wink and a playful jab to the ribs. On a slow Saturday night "the guys" thumbed through it for the most desirable and available woman in town.
It used to be the first item packed on a three-day business trip to Chicago or Des Moines. In its heyday, it shared the color and the promises of salvation of the Bible. I never had one, and I wonder how many men actually did.
My little black book is the wrong color: the sort of nondescript brown favored by lunch-bag manufacturers. It rarely slips into my side breast pocket with James-Bondian ease. It's much too fat for that kind of debonair maneuver.
It's the contents of my brown book that separate it from its sleek black cousin. From "A" to "Z", women's phone numbers are far outnumbered by such banal entries as doctors' and dentists' emergency extensions, the hair stylist three blocks away, the research desk at the New York Public Library, local information and weather, and the Chinese restaurant that delivers my neighborhood's best spring rolls.
Despite these terrestrial contents, my directory also serves a purpose the mythical little black edition never could: It chronicles in remarkable detail the people and places I have known over the past seven years. Its yellowed entries instantly send my memory back to friendships won, lost or, most often, neglected, and old haunts left behind.
A few days ago, I decided to bury my old address book and replace it with a slimmer version. I anticipated the telephone-book spring cleaning as an hour of tedium. It turned out to be a three-hour exercise in nostalgia.
At the top of each page, under a bent plastic alphabetic label, are the first names and numbers I entered in the summer of 1977. Back then, I printed each in a neat fountain-pen script, anxious to keep an orderly directory.
That fastidious style rapidly gave way to ball-point scrawl. Moving down each page, whatever initial logic there was soon disappears. The number for an old girlfriend who walked out before taking up with a disc jockey ended up next to a roach extermination service.
A third name sparked the memory of a "heavy" dorm-room bull session; another, a single, memorable meal in a Parisian couscous restaurant. In several cases, I reached for the phone to call up friends with whom I hadn't spoken in months, even years. When the operator's voice answered "the number you have dialed has been disconnected," I felt as if the lack of contact had removed any possibility of rekindling a neglected friendship.
Now, the women in my little brown book are a far cry from the social confections that the little black book promised. My names had earned their place in ink.
Under the "S" was Donna from Atlanta, who put up with my plan to backpack from Dubrovnik to Athens. She was a faithful companion ready to climb rocks, sing Beatles tunes or do nothing in particular in the Greek sun. I had at least six addresses for her in Georgia alone -- from home to campus to several efficiency apartments. I even had a six-digit exchange for her Paris maid's room where she studied French literature, nourished by pain au chocolat.
The "B's" recalled a gifted Juilliard violinist with a warm smile who, during a party, slipped me her address and number in the back of a music score. Suzanne's next address was in Rome, where she traveled for "musical and esthetic inspiration." Her old Manhattan address reminded me of our long talks over capuccino about the virtues of Italian wine, music and sultry Roman summers.
Savoring these memories slowed down the job I had to do. Some of my former entries were assured a future in the crisp new book simply by being essential to daily life: Amtrak, People Express and the Hampton Jitney reservation numbers, numbers for my landlord and for family members whose area codes swept Chevy Chase, London, Paris and New York.
Other numbers seemed less practical, and I was still confounded by when I had last dialed them. What possible use could I, in my present incarnation, have for the name and number of a sophomore editor of Columbia University's student newspaper for which I wrote movie reviews four years ago? And certainly "Eileen of North Courthouse Road" would have to go, since I no longer remember who Eileen is.
Some of the names in the old book were so obscure that I had needed to add shorthand descriptions to give them meaning. There was "Peggy E: blind girl with dog. Lost -- Penn. station." My memory raced back to the image of a thin girl and her seeing-eye dog lost in the din of the midtown train station. We ended up on the same Amtrak train to Washington, talking about jazz and her loyal dog, Blaze.
My old phone book charted the twists and turns of my closest friends' lives in color and detail. Red, green, blue and black pen entries trace Benjamin W.'s path from New Jersey to Vermont to Montreal and finally to rest at last in red ink in Johannesburg. Arrows connect his latest home and work phone numbers with the most recent address.
In the past I couldn't bring myself to strike out permanently the name of someone I would see only very occasionally. Three discreet lines knife through the name, obscuring but not quite eliminating it. Besides, who could tell if our correspondent might yet perk up? I wouldn't want to be the first to admit that I had crossed his or her name off my list.
My new $2.50 phone book is a marvel of organization. Each letter has a pared-down list with only the most essential names included -- all carefully printed in navy blue ink.
The book is neither seductively black nor the eccentric, shabby brown of the old. It is beyond reproach and also empty of personal history. It has only this year's names and numbers. It tells nothing of those that mattered last year.