I have a young friend — 17, to be precise — who comes by occasionally to help me sweep the snarls from my computer and soothe my technophobia. Some time back, passing through the kitchen, he spotted an object on my counter that stopped him in his tracks.
“Is THAT,” he exclaimed, pointing, “a Rolodex!”
Assured that it was, he was plainly astonished to see something he had heard about but never expected to lay eyes upon.
It was as if he’d found a horse and buggy in my garage.
He pounced on it, examined it carefully, even turned it over and announced: “Look at that! You just hook the cards on and you can turn it upside down.”
I tried to explain why I still had this artifact from the age of the dinosaur. In fact, I told him, several chapters of my life story are in that Rolodex.
I’ve been thinking about that generational encounter for several weeks now, just about every time I flip those little cards to find a number or an address.
Sure, many of the people have died, some have two or three or more address changes. Those landline numbers have been joined by cellphone numbers.
Sometimes, there is information on both sides. Being frugal, either my late husband or I have turned cards around — when restaurants have closed, doctors retired, people moved out of our lives — and used the other side for new friends, new plumbers, new tree trimmers, etc.
This close examination complete, my young friend went into my office to see what I had done to my computer (this time) and he hollered again: “Here’s another one!”
Indeed there is a second Rolodex on the shelf above my desk. It’s from The Press Democrat office I left in 2001.
It is seldom used these days. But, like my kitchen counter companion, it is a minuscule compendium of several decades, the community and the politics and the people involved.
That office Rolodex has its own blasts from the past — short-timer Congressman Frank Riggs, long-term DA Gene Tunney, potter Marguerite Wildenhain, movie star/ambassador Shirley Temple Black.
My college-student grandson, hearing of this episode of pure wonderment, admitted that he knew what a Rolodex looked like (probably because he spent a good portion of his youth hanging out here) but then he used his own experience to describe it: “It’s like the Contacts list on your iPhone.”
Me? I think of it in terms of my mother’s address book which I still have, carefully stashed away with other cherished remembrances — her rosary, her wedding ring. You all know the kinds of things I mean. It would be nice if the grandson looked at my Rolodex that way someday.
There’s a lot of history in these antiquities. Everyone in that little address book is long gone. Decades ago. But it is a reminder of people important to remember.
There’s my brother’s APO number in World War II; my sister’s first apartment on the Marina end of Fillmore Street in San Francisco where I used to go up on the roof and watch the Navy ships go under the Golden Gate. (What do you suppose those two rooms with a wall-bed rent for today?)
There are also, in my mother’s book, the other-language addresses of my grandparents, aunts and uncles in the Azores, and familiar names of friendships going back to her first years in the United States.
I would not part with that slim leather-bound book. Nor would I willingly part with my Rolodex.
It is indicative, I think, that when I packed the car in the first hours of that fearful October morning — just in case, as it turned out — I grabbed that Rolodex off the counter and put it in the glove compartment.
Enough of the nostalgia. I do have a point to make here.
This brief encounter with teenage wonderment at something so basic in my life made me stop to consider how quickly and thoroughly we discard the past as we move into the future.
Trains are certainly an example. The rush to pull out the train tracks when the automobile took over our lives looks a bit regrettable now that we spend literally billions on a system that creeps slowly (not the train but the tracks) toward the Bay Area.
We can all make lists of what we’ve left behind. And what we won’t give up. I persist in the use of my giant Random House Unabridged dictionary on occasion — when I want to indulge in the complexities of word roots and multiple meanings. I wouldn’t part with it, even though it doesn’t have definitions for “hashtag “ or “emoji,” to name just two of hundreds it doesn’t have.
But when innovations come along, we are so quick, so terribly quick, to discard the old.
Things we lose don’t have to be old. They come and go very quickly. A friend reported recently that she discovered neither her teenage son nor her septuagenarian mother had ever operated a fax machine. She felt trapped in the maze of middle-aged obsolesce.
We are all wandering around in that maze, some more lost than others. Even my young friend will find that he’s running hard to keep up with change.
I’m not about to give up my iPhone but I cling stubbornly to my landline, my Rolodex, my big dictionary, my Thomas Brothers book of maps, my tiny transistor radio, my high-beam flashlight.
There are some things we might still need. Dare I say sirens?
Nor should we discount what the technically equipped generations ahead can learn from what’s dumped on the trash heap of technology.
As a friend (who has the distinction of being in both of my Rolodexes) said when I mentioned all this to him: “Don’t you wish we had George Washington’s Rolodex?”
How about Henry the Eighth’s? Or Cleopatra’s?