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About Mary Schmich's Rolodex

I ran across my old Rolodex the other day, its black cover grimy with dust, the old cards gray with age, the ink on the cards faded, and the sight of this ancient artifact made me wonder: Does anybody use a Rolodex anymore?

Uh-oh.

To which anyone younger than 35 might reply: What's a Rolodex?

Is Bob Greene back?

No. It's just the Tribune's Mary Schmich waxing nostalgic for an inefficient office device in a way that is metaphorically perfect for a newspaper column.

Once upon a time, before smartphones and computers, before Outlook and Google, before we reduced friends and acquaintances to 'contacts,' working people logged names, addresses and phone numbers onto index cards in a little rotating file.

See, that was a time when friends were friends because we wrote their names down on a card that stayed on our office desk instead of typing them into a device we carry with us that can be used to contact them in all sorts of ways - from anywhere! Ah, the past. It was so much better!

Also, "working people" logged those names. It took brawn.

That's right, kids. You had to turn that knob by hand. Flip through cards with your fingers. Heavens to Betsy, you even had to know how to alphabetize!

In other words, Millennials are so lazy they can't turn a knob - though they can download a video on their phone to a web page instantaneously. Even without knowing how to alphabetize because kids today are stupid!

Can you imagine having to work that hard just to call someone?

See, Mary wants you to think it was hard work to flip through a Rolodex and punch buttons on a phone to reach someone. It took real effort, not like today!

On the path to full-fledged adulthood, getting a Rolodex was right up there with getting your first paycheck. It made you feel efficient and worldly, and the fatter your Rolodex got, the more important you felt. Showoffs kept more than one.

I don't know a single person who has ever thought getting a Rolodex was a signifier of adulthood, but maybe it was to Mary! It made her feel efficient. The vast majority of people whose jobs didn't come with Rolodexes were losers.

Back in those days, when half of humanity wasn't just a Google search away, losing your Rolodex - or having it stolen - was like losing a box of diamonds.

If you can't imagine what that was like, kiddos, just think about how you feel when you lose your phone!

A friend tells the story of a colleague who, in that dark age, quit his job on the spot after an argument with his boss. Before marching out of the office forever, however, he stormed back to his desk and grabbed his Rolodex.

Jerry Maguire took a goldfish, so I don't know how that's such a big deal.

Not every Rolodex was alike. (The word is a trademark, by the way, a fusion of 'rolling' and 'index.')

Sort of like how iPhone is a fusion of "internet" and "phone." And not every one is alike!

There were big ones and little ones, ones with covers and ones without. Most, but not all, twirled.

Oh. My. God.

Not every Rolodex user was alike either.

It was almost as if every Rolodex user was a different human!

Rolodex neatniks typed information on their cards. Rolodex slobs scribbled. I was among the latter group, as I was reminded when I stumbled on mine the other day.

That's when I thought, hey, I could milk a column out of this!

Despite its disarray, as I flipped through my Rolodex for the first time in 15 or so years, the past wafted forth, like a genie from a bottle.

Do genies waft from bottles? Wafting is really more about odors.

There were sources for stories I'd forgotten I'd written, friends who had switched jobs and homes many times since our Rolodex days.

If you don't know what that's like, just imagine scrolling through your contact list and finding all sorts of people you've lost touch with!

There were the dearly departed: The editor of my first newspaper. A friend who died in a car crash. My mother.

You put your mother in your Rolodex? So you wouldn't forget her number when you wanted to call her from work? What did you do when you were at home - or did you keep one there, too?

There was Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for the Windy City Times who wrote about gay issues back when that was risky. Johnny 'Red' Kerr, the great basketball player and commentator. Kurt Vonnegut. All gone now, but in my Rolodex, their old phone numbers live on.

I used to have the phone number of a famous author and a couple other people!

Every name that passed by revived an experience, a relationship, which is why I haven't gotten rid of the Rolodex, even though I'll never call most of those people again.

But you just stumbled upon it for the first time in 15 years! It's almost as if you forgot it existed, which is somehow why you haven't gotten rid of it!

But back to the question: Does anybody use a Rolodex anymore?

You clearly don't. I mean, if you love it so much, why not?

When I asked around my office, several people of an age I'll call "vintage" said they still had one, somewhere, in a drawer or a box, but didn't use it.

Several people also thought, Gee, Mary, out of column ideas again?

A 42-year-old said he'd skipped the Rolodex phase and gone straight to a PalmPilot, a device that now seems equally quaint.

Not really.

When I spot a Rolodex on someone's desk, I imagine it's there as homage to the past, like a manual typewriter, but a 38-year-old in my office swears she still uses hers.

I have three. I still occasionally consult them. I'm not about to transfer hundreds of names into my phone. But if you aren't carrying the contact information you truly need with you at all times, you aren't doing your job.

"We do get requests," says Don Schmidt, who runs Atlas Stationers in the Loop, a shop founded by his grandfather in 1939.

But not a lot of requests. The store, which sells a small modern version of the file, is likelier to hear from longtime Rolodexers in search of replacement cards, which are hard to find. Some sizes have disappeared entirely, Schmidt says, though others show up periodically on eBay.

Schmidt dates the decline of Rolodex to the 1990s and the beginning of the digital revolution.

Um, duh?

He keeps his own in his "office museum" at home.

But the old has a way of becoming new again. There was a time when Schmidt thought his old-fashioned stationery business might not survive a digital age. But, he says, sales are stronger than ever, helped by millennials who love journals and greeting cards and can be fascinated by a fountain pen.

"Millennials are doing a backlash against digital," he says.

How quaint, but no. Appreciating stationery and fountain pens isn't a backlash; analog aesthetics and digital nativity are not mutually exclusive.

Who knows? Rolodexes could become the next hip accoutrement.

Don't do that. Don't try to do that. Millennials are gonna walk around with a Rolodex strapped to their person, or perhaps tucked away in a fanny pack?

And if they do, I've got some empty cards to sell, for the right price.

Ah ha ha ha ha! The big ending! Boom!

-

Comments welcome.



Permalink

Posted on March 9, 2016


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SPORTS - Why Was This Game Even Scheduled?

BOOKS - Postdictatorship Argentina.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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