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Al Martinez

Playing by the Numbers : I think I have finally outlived my potential for adapting to new eras.

May 22, 1986|Al Martinez

My chimerical friend Billy Cobalt telephoned the other day in a panic.

"I'm desperate," he said. "My 1200 broke down. Can I come over and use yours?"

"Can't do it," I said. "It's a company car."

"Not your 6000, man! Your 1200!"

"Oh, my 1200," I said, chuckling. "Sure, come on over."

It wasn't until I hung up that I realized I didn't know what my 1200 was.

I looked around the house but nothing struck me as being a 1200. I didn't even know what a 1200 ought to look like.

I called to my wife, who was typing in the other room. "What's our 1200? Cobalt wants to use it."

"I think it's the television set," she said.

I checked. "No, that's our 2000."

"I thought the 2000 was my car."

"That's the 300," I said. "What's the typewriter number?"

"7000. We have an 8000 too."

Cobalt is in his late 20s and therefore of a generation raised under the influence of digital definition. Nothing has simply a name. We are surrounded by numbers.

I wandered from room to room. Our camera is an N2000. Our phone is a 7000. Our VCR is a 120. Our answering machine is a 1500. Our refrigerator is an 800. Our stereo is a . . . well, I don't remember what our stereo is. A 622, I think.

The doorbell rang. It was Cobalt.

"You're a real pal," he said. "I don't even know anyone else with a 1200."

"No problem," I replied cheerfully. "Our 1200 is always available."

"Is it working all right?"

My wife entered the room, watching with amusement.

"Just fine," I said. "It never misses a beat."

"Great," Cobalt said. "Where do you keep it?"

"I was wondering that myself," my wife said. "Where do you keep it?"

"I keep it," I said, stalling, "in the . . . garage!"

He looked at me with an expression of puzzlement. "You keep your word processor in the garage?"

"Oh, that," I said. "I thought you were talking about my tiller. That's a 1200 too."

"No it isn't," he replied, "it's a 3.5."

"Cobalt," I said, "just go use the damned word processor and leave me alone."

He shrugged. "Suit yourself." Then, as he headed for my work room, he called back, "Is the 210 working?"

"Whatever the hell it is, try it."

I think I have finally outlived my potential for adapting to new eras. I did OK with the atomic era, the space age and the sexual revolution, but I am not certain I have the mental capacity for the Age of Numbers.

I have been thinking about this ever since my encounter with Billy Cobalt. Even casual descriptions are couched in numerical terms. He could have simply said my word processor or my Tandy, and I would have known instantly what he meant. My 1200 means nothing to me.

I am drowning in a digital overflow. Even the act of dialing a telephone number has assumed monstrous proportions.

I can remember a time when all one had to do was dial four numbers in order to be connected with another party.

Now, because I have MCI, I am dialing a seven-digit access number, a five-digit personal code, a three-digit area code, a three-digit prefix and only then the four-digit number I wanted in the first place. Then I ask for Extension 2570.

That is a total of 26 numbers in order to hear my Aunt Emily's answering machine in East Oakland say she cannot come to the phone right now.

My telephone is programmable, so for a while all I had to do was push one number in order to reach Emily. But then MCI changed my code and my access sequence and I can't remember how to re-program. I am back to punching 22 numbers again and remembering a four-number extension each time I call.

Aunt Emily is simply not worth 26 numbers.

"Remember the old days," I said to my wife, "when all you had to remember was your Social Security number?"

"Sure," she said, "but you have to keep up with changing times. Retrain yourself. Think numerically."

I don't know that I am able to do that. For years I have gotten by remembering only my age, the date of my birth and my phone number. Sometimes I remember my address, sometimes I don't.

My inability to cope with the age of digits was never made clearer than when I ordered a bottle of perfume for my wife by phone.

I had to give the lady my credit card number, its expiration date, my home phone number, my work number, my address, my date of birth, the perfume's stock number and its cost. That came to 61 digits.

When she asked for the number of my driver's license, I surrendered.

"Lady," I said, "there is nothing in this world worth 69 digits."

As I hung up, Cobalt entered from the den. "Thanks for the use of your 1200," he said. "Gimme five."

I gave him one, and it sent him flying out the door.

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