The White Pages, Where Anybody Could Be Somebody

The residential White Pages may soon be a thing of the past. Regulators have long required phone companies to publish and distribute the directories to their customers each year, but AT&T and Verizon have gotten permission to stop the practice in a growing list of states.

Like rotary-dial phones and telephone booths, the White Pages are on the way out. Phone companies have stopped distributing them in some states, saying the listings are all on the Internet.

But a limited number of directories will still be available for anyone who requests them. And the phone book has its fans.

Take, for instance, Steve Martin's character in the 1979 film The Jerk. For him, getting listed in the White Pages promised a rise to fortune and fame.

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In one famous scene, Martin's character interrupts his work at a gas station to yell with excitement, "The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here!"

His boss at the gas station, played by Jackie Mason, is dubious. "I wish I could get that excited about nothing," he says.

"Nothing?! Are you kidding?" Martin yells as he flips through the pages of listings. "Page 73. Johnson, Navin R. I'm somebody now!"

Roy Peter Clark is already a well-known "somebody" — he has spent years working as an author and journalist. Still, he says, there's something special about seeing himself in the White Pages.

"I don't do this anymore," he says, "but when the new phone book used to be delivered, especially when I was new to a community, you wanted to check your own name — first to see if it was accurate, but also as a kind of a test of your membership in this new community."

But soon, the only community he'll be part of is the global community of millions of people listed in telephone directories on the Internet. That's because phone companies like AT&T and Verizon have decided in several states to stop printing hard copies of residential phone directories for most of their customers.

"The bottom line is, there are many more sources for finding a telephone number other than the traditional paper directory," says Verizon spokesman John Bonomo.

"By and large, for the majority of the population, if it's not used, then it's probably a prudent step not to produce them," he says, "and not to deliver them to those people who frankly either just throw them away, or, you know, they get stored in the back of a closet, and they get wasted there."

To be clear, the Yellow Pages and the business listings in the White Pages aren't going anywhere. But unless you specifically request a hard copy of the residential listings, you'll now have to call directory assistance or look up what you need on the Internet, if you weren't doing that already. It's a move environmentalists say is long overdue. But it doesn't bode well for the Navin Johnsons of the world.

After all, as Steve Martin's character says: "Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity — your name in print — that makes people!"

It would be nice to ask what Navin Johnson thinks of the looming change. But surely there's no way to do that; Navin R. Johnson doesn't really exist.

He doesn't exist, that is — except in some phone books. For instance, he's listed in the Tampa, Fla., telephone directory.

A call to the number got a quick answer.

Asked if he were Mr. Johnson, a man said, "Ah ... no. Actually, there is no Navin Johnson."

His real name, it turns out, is Shawn Panessa.

"When I was getting the phone set up, I didn't want my name registered in the White Pages," Panessa says. "And to not be listed cost money. But to be listed as a fictitious name is free. So actually my friend's dad originally had the idea of listing as Navin Johnson. And I think his phone is, as well.

Asked how he thinks Navin Johnson would feel about the White Pages going away, Panessa says, "I guess he would be very sorry. Very sad."

But as for Panessa himself, he says what many people say — that phone books are an item that have outlived their usefulness. As he puts it, "It's a nice doorstop, but I only have so many doors."

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