• July 14, 2009

    Phonebooks Pile Up During Toronto's Garbage Strike

    I noticed an interesting thing last week and promptly forgot about it until I noticed it again a few minutes ago. The phonebooks stacked neatly against the wall in the lobby of my apartment building are still there. Two weeks ago, everyone living in the city of Toronto received a new phonebook and Yellow Pages. In previous years, these books would have been snatched up quickly with some people taking two or more books to place under each phone. This year, nobody has bothered. The pile has not moved, it is exactly the same as it was last week and, based on the count of books in the pile, exactly the same as it was minutes after being delivered. I asked a couple of my neighbors, each of whom lives alone, why they hadn't picked up their phonebooks. Cory, my next door neighbor, is a musician paying his way through the night school of the club circuit by attending University of Toronto during the day. Soo-Li's apartment is right below Cory's. She sits on her beautiful balcony living her own version of the DOT-COM dream as she builds yet another small business website. Though both are younger than I am, Cory isn't nearly as geeky as Soo-Li or I are. Both Soo-Li and Cory said they use the Internet to find people, businesses and information. For them, a phonebook is a waste of energy. Local search (both indicated Google) is the way to find businesses and services. Social media is the way to find people when they can't be found in an online phone directory. Most of the people on my street in downtown Toronto appear to agree. Phonebook piles appear in front of the three apartment buildings on the half-block between my door and Bloor, the street I buy my late-as-lunch breakfast on everyday. Walking along Bloor, one of the most important east-west roadways crossing the city, I notice even more phonebooks left unclaimed by the people who rent flats above the street-level shops. Wrapped in plastic and left undamaged by the elements, these piles of old-growth paper have become part of the urban landscape, invisible until confronted and quickly forgotten until confronted again. I haven't picked up a phonebook or Yellow Pages for the apartment I am subletting yet. I feel almost as if I am breaking a long-held social contract to pick up my copy of the phonebooks as I always have for the past 20-odd years. The damn books have been sitting there for weeks! I really should pick one up next time I enter the building. It should be a priority, like checking the mail, cleaning the cat litter or showering daily. Alas, it's not a priority for me and probably never will be again. I use the Internet for virtually everything. I not only use the Internet to look for a pizza, I even order that pizza online! I resent the piles of hundreds of thousands of phonebooks staggered in stacks around the city. I think they suck and, unlike the pizza I find online, the pizzas in the phonebook are rarely as good as they look in 4-color print. The trees such books are made from would be better off alive. Nevertheless, I've got to get one anyway. I am fairly sure the friend I am subletting from would want one. He has two 08/09 phonebooks atop one of the bookshelves in the office-room. A middle-aged high school teacher, my friend tends towards the solidly tactile sensation of holding on to books. Books are, by design, historic records accurate to the moment they were printed. Digital databases on the other hand are, by design, threateningly fluid and not to be fully trusted. At one time, printing lists of local numbers was a license to print stacks of money. The white pages provided personal phone numbers for free (it actually cost money to stay out of the listings) while the yellow pages provided business phone numbers as advertisements for a fee. I was going to delve into a research session to figure out a comparison between the phonebook racket and search but a little voice inside my head said that would be a kin to studying the specs of a biplane in order to describe the performance of a 737. In a society evolving as quickly as ours is technologically and economically, the days of the printed list are numbered. Then again, pundits said the same thing about printed coupons a few years ago. Remember when confirming your name was published in the phonebook gave the same sense of satisfaction a good vanity search should? I don't. It's been too long since I cared. I don't even have a terrestrial line to list anyway. I do recall recoiling in horror when I saw the bill for the first 1/4 page Yellow Pages advertisement I ever bought for the first business I ever owned. I cared about that listing though in the end the ad cost more than the revenue it attracted. Those piles of phonebooks are going to remain around for a while. A civic workers strike prevents city workers from clearing them away and recycling them into post-consumer fibers for coffee cups or bathroom products. Maybe when the strike-weary citizenry finally takes to the barricades in a desperate bid to end the city workers strike, those piles of phonebooks might become useful for blockades or bonfires. Until then, I hope they become homes for wildlife, birds and insects, just like they were before being pulped into what is now an obsolete product.