There’s something oddly comforting about her long-held habit of spinning the wheel and adding a new contact in ink, perhaps at some point drawing a line through a number or address to amend it should there be the need.
I still recall in college when she informed me she switched to pencil for my card. “You have a new number every minute,” she said. “I’m running out of space.” And it was true.
The thing about a Rolodex is that you never have to purge a contact. You can remove a card, of course; you can move it to its own section or take it out and place it in the back of a drawer somewhere, should that contact become irrelevant. Not so my iPhone contacts.
With a phone address book you have two choices: In or out.
Last night, after accidentally dialing an old “Christina/mobile” number and instead getting her mother at her own home (we had a very nice chat!) I thought it was time to purge my address list.
First, and most easily to go were the duplicates. (I love you Christina, but I don’t need six listings for you.) Then, the names I could hardly even put a face with–maybe a vague memory or a single image would pop up to jar the gray matter; say a mousy-haired young man sitting around a table in a memoir class reading about his mother’s china collection; or a woman with a Massachusetts accent and a ponytail who I seemed to recall on a stage next to me at UCB theater, trying desperately to save our Harold in the role of an alien firefighter.
Next were the people who I knew I’d never call again:
Colleagues from jobs in the 90’s who’d long since abandoned that email address–if the company even existed anymore.
A magazine editor whose introduction and subsequent trading-of-the-numbers I completely blew before I had the confidence to commit to writing.
A comedian I had gone on a single date with, fairly certain I’d take a second, until he spent the next night crying to me on the phone about his ex-girlfriend and something about a threesome, that I couldn’t quite follow.
Neighborhood parents from a mommy-and-me class in 2005 who had called it quits in Brooklyn and moved to Rye.
The psycho commercial director who went all Travis Bickle on us, shaving his head and eyebrows on a bender the night before the shoot.
College friends’ home addresses.
The pizza place in my old neighborhood.
Lots of lapsed colleagues who I know I won’t contact, but could find on Facebook should some urgent ex-contacting need arise.
An administrative assistant who used to bake us fresh cookies each week.
An old college buddy I’d run into once in 2001 and said “I’ll call you!” but never did.
First names that were unidentifiable even from the area code.
(Sorry “Beth” and “JS”–I’m sure you are lovely people. And “Brig?” No idea WTF that even means, but you too buddy. Enjoy the weather in the 310.)
There were even some cathartic deletes, like the writing partner who made my life hell in a way I would not have allowed for today. The old me would have hung onto that number, just in case. But not today. Today, I purge. Another clean slate in my life. Another place to declutter my life psychically. The essential closing of old chapters so new ones can begin.
All was well with my little plan (I’m so productive! I rock!) until I smacked head first into this impenetrable, jarring wall that oddly, I hadn’t really expected: The names of those in my life who have died.
With some consideration, I deleted the Queens address of my step-grandparents Mickey and Nat I couldn’t justify keeping the Floral Park address in my contacts, the one I looked at once a year for holiday cards.
However I stopped when I got to Momsie, my own mother’s mother.
I couldn’t do it. The connection is too deep and still, too present. I want to see in my mind that long driveway leading into her condo complex. I want to smell the fresh white paint on the walls around the pool and the chlorine and the Florida palms. I want to keep that phone number committed to memory, with a safe place for it should I ever juxtapose a number or two in my head. Momsie stays.
Next I found my childhood friend Julie, whose name I simply changed to her husband’s, deleting her work email and trying hard not to look at the notes I had made about the names and ages of her children that still haunt me since her own death. I also found Florence’s parents, with her name and her sister’s name jotted under notes. This one was raw; it’s been one year this week since Florence is gone and that young promising life cut short far, far too soon. I couldn’t bring myself to remove her name from the contact.
Also difficult for me was the name Susan Niebur popping into view, her Twitter handle and URL and email still completed–the sign of a “newer” friend relative to many–and again, as with Momsie, I couldn’t muster the energy it would take to scroll down three swipes to reach that red DELETE button.
How can you DELETE a person? Isn’t there a better term we could use in that ominous red bar?
We have all these kindly if stupid euphemisms for dying: They’ve passed. We’ve lost them. They are no longer with us. The term deletion never comes into play. These people are far less deleted from our lives than those single dates or the fuzzy memory of that one girl, or the semi-clean Chinese take-out in another area code that saved us on lonely Friday nights year ago.
I can delete dan dan noodles take-out. I can delete that jerky guy with the ex issues. I can delete the random (401) phone number that leads nowhere.
Social media connects us but man, it makes it hard to unconnect. We all know the awkwardness when it’s time to unfriend an acquaintance, to detach from a former inlaw, to untether from an old relationship, to unfollow, to unfan, to unboyfriend. And yet no one talks about the simple act of deleting from an address book.
Poof. One touch. You’re gone.
I can finally understand the importance of that ratty, yellowing Rolodex on my mother’s desk, where people aren’t deleted with the push of a button. They stay, they move, they’re filed, they’re somewhere, they’re somewhere else. They are not, as in this technological world of organization through bits and bytes, simply in–or out.
There’s nuance to a Rolodex. And of course, all that lovely handwriting.
[photo hannes grobe]