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Home Is Where the Area Code Is

Why we hang onto those three meaningless digits

I got my first cellphone in college, in 1998. It came with a phone number and, more specifically, a Connecticut area code (203). I’ve yet to change either of them. In fact, when it comes to the area code in particular, I feel no need whatsoever to ever possess a different one. (203) just feels right to me: I was born and raised in Connecticut; I went to college in Connecticut; my family still makes their home in Connecticut.

And so, over the last 18 years, (203) has traveled with me from New Haven to Anchorage (907) to Washington, D.C. (202) to New York City (212) to my current home in L.A. (213/310/323/562/626/818).

All the while, it confuses just about everyone I come into contact with — outside of Connecticut, of course.

“Whoa, what planet is that from?” cashiers at my local grocery store have been known to ask when I give them my phone number — which doubles as my rewards ID.

I shrug my shoulders. “I’m from Connecticut.”

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with the area codes in the other places I’ve lived. It just seems like a misrepresentation of my identity to use them. I’m no more a (310) than I am a throat surgeon. And the longer I spend in California, the clearer it becomes that Connecticut is where my heart is.

Shouldn’t my area code reflect that?

Nor am I alone. Virtually none of my friends has an area code related to their current geographic location.

“I’ve still got my 917,” says Ethan, a Hollywood transplant by way of New York City. “And I’m proud of that fact; it’s my number.”

“Rocking my Hartford roots with the 860,” adds Caroline, a fellow Connecticut native who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. “I won’t get rid of it. Too many people from long ago still have that number, and even if I haven’t spoken to them in years, what if they wanted to call for some reason? You never know!”

Others keep their old area codes to honor a moment in time.

“At first, I hung on to my 202 Washington, D.C., number because it was the only number I could remember by heart,” admits Mary, who was born in Alabama and moved back after a stint in the nation’s capital. “Now, it’s pure nostalgia. I loved being in D.C. those days.”

Interestingly, there are no data to back up what seems so readily apparent: A majority of us are using area codes that have nothing to do with where we’re currently living.

“Verizon doesn’t keep stats on the retention of area codes when customers move from state to state,” says Chuck Hamby, director of Corporate Communications at Verizon Wireless. “I have no numerical stats to even say they keep their number ‘for an average of XYZ years.’ I guess they keep them now until there’s another reason to change them.”

As for why, Hamby thinks it comes down to inertia. “Since Local Number Portability [allowing customers to retain phone numbers when changing providers] took effect in 2003, people tend to hold onto old numbers simply because they can.”

The other anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered would seem to support this theory.

“Since they made numbers portable, why would I ever change it, regardless of where I live?” asks Ethan, the New-Yorker-turned-Angeleno. “I don’t know, call it laziness… But have you ever been on the line with your cell carrier?”

Even Chuck from Verizon is clinging to digits from a bygone time in his life. “I live in New Jersey but still have a Florida area code and number. Whatever’s easiest usually wins with me :)” he wrote to me via email.

From a historical perspective, our deep attachment to our phone numbers is nothing new. In fact, AT&T faced a minor rebellion in the 1950s when it introduced all-digit dialing (e.g., 310–555–2424) to cut down on the labor costs — switchboard operators in “central offices” who connected calls by inserting phone plugs into jacks — associated with placing a call back then. In those days, phone numbers weren’t numbers, per se, but alphanumeric addresses of the central offices encompassing a particular region, followed by a 5-digit personal identifier. For example: “My dad’s newspaper and candy delivery service on Madison Avenue was BUtterfield 8–8848,” remembers Laura, who explains that the actual numbers dialed were 2 (for the letter B), 8 (for the letter U) and then 8–8848 (hence the capital letters).

In opposition to AT&T’s new numbering plan, the Anti-Digit Dialing League formed to combat what it referred to as “creeping numeralism.” In the League’s manifesto, “Phones Are for People,” co-founder and famed semanticist S. I. Hayakawa warned: “These people are systematically trying to destroy the use of memory. They tell you to ‘write it down,’ not memorize it. Try writing a telephone number down in a dark booth while groping for a pencil, searching in an obsolete phone book and gasping for breath. And all this in the name of efficiency!”

The ADDL lost the war, however. In 1964, territories were divided into “numbering plan areas” and given three-digit codes. The most populous cities got area codes that took the shortest amount of time to dial on a rotary phone. New York City: 212; Los Angeles: 213; Chicago: 312; Detroit: 313; and Philadelphia: 215.

Those codes are now essentially tapped out, according to John Manning, the current director of the North American Numbering Plan and the guy responsible for all the area coding in the U.S., Canada and Caribbean. “We don’t have any more 212 prefixes to give out,” he says. “The same can be said for 312 in Chicago, 213 in L.A. and 404 for downtown Atlanta. Especially if people have been in that area for a long time, they don’t want to give them up.”

Scarcity has not only inspired a growing black market for vanity area codes, it’s also caused some to cling even tighter to their hometown codes, fearing a piece of their identity could be lost forever.

Especially because, as it turns out, most of us aren’t living at “home.” According to a 2008 Pew study among U.S.-born adults who had lived in more than one community, nearly 40 percent responded that “home” was somewhere other than where they were currently residing. Twenty-six percent said “home” was where they were born or raised; 18 percent said it was where they had lived the longest; 15 percent said it was where their family came from; and 4 percent said it was where they went to high school.

“In this day and age, when more and more people are opting to live in places that aren’t the ones from their childhood, an area code is sometimes the only thing that ties them back to home,” says Hannah, who currently lives in Chicago (312) but was forced to part with her beloved (917) to join her Detroit-based husband’s family plan (248).

Of course, there’s another way to look at it, argues Hank, a Louisville native (502) marooned in Santa Barbara (805). Maybe an area code is the only thing holding people back from finding a new home. Says Hank, “I know people who move from Kentucky to California and instantly get a new phone number because they want to lose that part of themselves.”

C. Brian Smith is a writer in Los Angeles. In his last piece for MEL, he interviewed gay men who adopted their partners before same-sex marriage was a thing.