Groans of dismay over a new area code took up a huge chunk of the local news a few nights ago—even though the poll flashed at the segment’s end shows that more than 70 percent of us “don’t care.” The loyalists do. “Forever #314,” tweeted St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan, and St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fenske wrote, “I moved to St. Louis from Arizona and never changed my AZ phone number—and now I’m really second-guessing that. Suddenly a 314 area code feels like a true status symbol, a proof of belonging.” STL Style’s 314 t-shirt, with the numbers dripping paint because they were just swiped into the air by King Louis on horseback, is poised to sell out. People might even rush to get a 314 cell while they can….
Is this silly, to give three digits such weight? Tons of nonprofits locate and root themselves by using their acronym plus 314 as their url. When the county added 636, people with that area code suddenly seemed a little remote, distanced from the heart of the city, occasionally even requiring a prefatory “1.”
Numbers are shortcuts. Often disastrously so. We tend to (mis)define one another by salary, age, weight (just listen to the Maintenance Phase podcast’s deconstruction of BMI). But I remember being charmed by the already archaic use of “the 411” (the old directory assistance number) to mean somebody’s contact information.
Unfortunately, I kept blurting “the 911” instead, which was not the right connotation. Numbers are easily confused. And sometimes they are imaginary. Inflated, manipulated, or just plain fibbed, usually by someone who is forever thirty-nine, makes six digits, and still weighs 110 pounds.
The real imaginary numbers, to risk an oxymoron, are the square roots of negative numbers. Although they are not, in fact, real numbers, they gave us real electricity, computers, and quantum physics. Had we not divined (constructed?) their existence, I would be typing these words on a Royal manual typewriter.
Our 314 is anything but imaginary: it was one of the original codes created in 1947. It is easy to dial, its numbers close to one another. On a rotary dial, that meant less spinning. Now it means no finger stretching, no nervous bounce back and forth between rows. Two of the numerals are prime, and there is a nice mix of odd and even. Also, the three digits correspond nicely to the three letters of STL; we could assign S, T, and L those values and go on to create a secret code.
The ancients used gematria to assign meaning to numbers, setting up a numerical equivalent for every letter in the alphabet. Centuries later, rabbis could weave a brilliant net with gematria, exploring relationships among ideas, people, historic events, and Talmudic passages.
For a lark, I look up my birth date and am delighted to learn that twenty-six is “the gematric number,” because it is the sum of the Hebrew characters ( יהוה) that name the god of Israel. From there I learn about Strong’s numbers, which are used in a concordance to index the Bible. Original language words are listed in back, a number assigned to each, and the Greek “Strongs number” G26 is assigned to “agape,” which means love. A nice correspondence—you could build a theology atop it.
Clearly, numbers have infinite possibilities—yet they are precise, used mainly to pinpoint, measure, and limit. I am always glad when the year turns to an even number, which I thought an idiosyncrasy until I read that many people prefer evens. Social scientists have decided that is because our brains process them more easily. (That, or Pythagoras is right, and even numbers are feminine.)
Consumer psychologist Dan King of the National University of Singapore and marketing researcher Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida did the research on number fluency influencing what we favor, and they also found that numbers are make-or-break for certain products. WD-40 just sounds stable and reliable, starting with that square four. And study participants clearly preferred a product branded Zinc 24 to one called Zinc 31 or just plain Zinc.
Will we like 557? There is a nice doubling, a double nickel at the start, and then just an incremental raise to seven. But it is odd. So odd. And somehow not as pleasing. Is it 557 or 577? Where is that nice clean “1,” as neat a divider as a pocket door?
My own area code is 618 (she says happily), as I live across the river in a town so small that when somebody asks for your number, you only have to say the last four digits. Personally, I still miss the old words—Pennsylvania, Colfax, Butterfield…. Half a century ago, I memorized Evergreen 3-6562, and I still remember it. I like the idea of a village so small all the houses just have names.
But that is all it is: an idea. We are a numeric society, and a densely packed one, and landlines are nearly extinct. Yet we cling to our area code. Whoever makes these calls must have known how traumatic it would be to overlay another area code, because they stalled for twenty years.
Why is this such a deal? We live in a time of “number portability.” The wild mix of area codes on people’s cell phones, disconcerting at first, is now just a conversation starter. Unfamiliar numbers no longer paralyze us. But a symbolic number can still root you in a community. That area code was our jersey, and though no one is retiring it, it will no longer stand for a city.
St. Louis is proud of so little, and often pathetic. We are still muttering imprecations at Stan Kroenke, who made a business decision to take his football team away, because we do not want to admit that football is big business, and its fans own nothing but enthusiasm. That said, team spirit is bracing, and the fact that we liked our 314 identity makes a refreshing change from that shortlist we repeat ad infinitum to console ourselves: the Arch, the 1904 World’s Fair, cheap real estate, lots of good schools and hospitals.
St. Louis was always more than its 314. You could argue that a second area code overlaid on this one’s territory will somehow expand our reach, reminding us of growth, of all the communication flying back and forth. The optimistic chap who runs STL Style even told Sara Machi of 5 on Your Side that the addition of 557 “might actually add value to the original 314.” But we all know that doubling the numbers will only dilute their symbolism. We no longer have a shortcut to identity.
The new area code takes effect August 12, 2022, the date itself a pleasing configuration. An auspicious time to look for something a little more meaningful to tie the city together.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.