Joyce Richards was signing the lease on her new apartment when a reporter dropped by the rental agency with the bad news: As a newcomer, an immigrant from Honolulu, she was probably about to become a 646.
"Nooooo!" Richards wailed. "I wanted a 212! It's a landmark, like the Empire State Building. Six-what? People will say, 'Where's that?' Everyone knows New York is 212."
Not anymore, lady. As locals and would-be locals are just beginning to realize, Manhattan's venerable 212 area code is running out of numbers. So 646, which officially took effect on Wednesday, will be handed out starting this week.
"It's not something I'm going to advertise to my clients," Richards's agent at Citi Habitats, Ryan Fix, said grimly. "They'll be very upset."
Indeed, the fledgling Lehman Brothers financial analysts who were there searching for a three-bedroom apartment for $3,600 were indignant. "Spending all this money and not getting a 212?" said Marcus Kupferschmidt, just graduated from Northwestern University. "I feel cheated."
Perhaps other cities handle this sort of transition with less angst. People do grasp that the proliferation of cell phones, pagers, faxes and computer modems--plus competition by local phone companies, each with a block of 10,000 numbers reserved for its customers whether it needs that many or not--means that the 7.92 million usable numbers in an area code get consumed in a comparative blink. Los Angeles already has four area codes within its city limits; Houston copes with three and Dallas is about to. Lockheed Martin, which administers the North American Numbering Plan and is therefore in charge of what's known in the biz as "area code relief," has assigned 27 new codes just since January and will probably add another 25 or 30 annually for the next few years.
Even here, where the city seal should include the motto "I kvetch, therefore I am," the tantrums have been limited so far, since few current Manhattanites will be affected. The state's Public Service Commission wisely decided in 1997 on an "overlay" approach: Instead of dividing Manhattan in two, then irritating half its testy residents by forcing them to change their phone numbers, the new code will be assigned only to luckless new arrivals or to new phone lines.
The commission seemed to think that the major public objection to the overlay will be inconvenience. And it will, indeed, be a hassle to dial 11 digits (including the initial "1" that New Yorkers use to dial any other area code) to reach the new cafe on the corner, that hot new club downtown or your new neighbor down the hall.
But the real source of tsoris is sociocultural: the looming stigma of 646. Like walking slowly, wearing pastels or ordering a pastrami with mayo, it will be the mark of the outlander. "646 is like a tattoo: It identifies you as a newcomer," says Citi Habitats president Andrew Heiberger, not unsympathetically. "212 is a status symbol. 646 is public notice, to anyone you give your phone number to, that you just got here." And are, therefore, not as cool.
The city has been through this caste system by phone number before. There are still plenty of people in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island who resent the Great Divide of 1985, when they were summarily lopped off from the rest of the city and branded 718. But this new change strikes at Manhattan itself, which has been 212 since area codes were first assigned in 1947.
The very digits indicate that its creators understood New York's position at the center of the universe. The codes for the biggest cities--like Chicago's 312 and Los Angeles' 213--were designed to be dialed speedily on a rotary phone. And no allowable combination is faster to rotary dial than 212, proof that more people were expected to call here than, well, anywhere.
Ever since, 212 has been universally recognized. It has cachet. Leave a 646 number for an agent in L.A. or a banker in Hong Kong and the party you're calling, figuring you're some schmo from Indianapolis, will return all the 212 calls before yours. Or so the new arrivals fear.
There was griping about this months back when Bell Atlantic had already run out of 212s for some larger customers. Scient, a company that builds online systems for e-business clients, moved to new quarters at 17th and Broadway in April and was assigned a 917 area code--once reserved for pagers and cell phones but being pressed into service during the 212 shortage. "The indignity!" grouses Scient director Dan Levy. "We look like a bunch of drug dealers."
Soon, the implications for current 212-holders will become plain. "Now I can never move!" lamented Molly Ker, a senior project manager at the interactive marketing firm agency.com. The rent keeps rising on the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend near Gramercy Park--it just hit $1,950--and she's thought about looking for a cheaper place. "But I refuse to deal with a nouveau area code," she says--and that's what she'd probably get, unless she stayed close enough to take her current number with her. "Oh, this sucks. This drives me crazy!"
If Bell Atlantic were attuned to such issues, it would launch a terrific, slightly subterranean marketing campaign to make the new code desirably cutting edge. "Get Puff Daddy to promote it," Heiberger suggests. Alas, the planned media blitz will consist of snoozy, half-page newspaper ads--"Manhattan Has a New Area Code. What Does That Mean to You?" This is what happens when you hire an agency from Philadelphia.
Of course, everyone can see what's going to happen here. There is always some turnover in phone numbers as businesses close and individuals die or, worse, get transferred to places like Detroit. Relinquished numbers are taken out of service for up to a year, and can then be recycled for new customers. Thus, while it's unlikely that a large company will ever be able to assemble enough 212s within the same exchange to meet its needs, a residential customer or small shop may, on any given day, call a local phone company and find a 212 randomly available. If only you knew which day . . .
In a city where people constantly work the angles--prospective tenants routinely slip cash to building supers for advance word on vacant apartments, and savvy shoppers have contacts in the Garment District and friends in the Diamond District--consider the possibilities. Your roommate's cousin's Aunt Rose--who works in a Bell Atlantic central office--might tip you off to an available 212 for, say, a hundred bucks. Or some entrepreneur could launch a phone company, amass 212s and charge elite customers five times the going rate for 646s. Bell Atlantic and Public Service Commission spokesmen offer a host of legal and ethical reasons why that won't happen. Isn't it pretty to think so?
By the way: A recent Lockheed Martin study projected the length of time until other area codes will, in telcom parlance, be "exhausted." 202? Used up by the second quarter of 2004. Just wait.