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Sometimes the friendliness of strangers is better than the greatest of technology.

“We’re meeting for lunch at Emil Villa’s on East 14th  in San Leandro,” said my friend Sandy, “Tuesday at 1:15,” referring to our lunch-bunch, the bulk being made up from women of many ages who choose to get together just for fun at a different restaurant each month.  I was ready for another “Caregiver’s Break Day,” and this time everything fit perfectly into my schedule.  “I’ve never been to that one,” I replied.  “Can you give me a cross street?”  “Not really,” she answered, “but I can give you the number: 1800.”  I told her how much I appreciated her call, and I would meet them there.

East 14th Street is the main thoroughfare stretching all the way into Oakland, which is about six to eight miles north of the south city limits.  By changing its name several times the same meandering roadway will take you many more miles south to San Jose.

The forenamed restaurant should be easy to find I thought to myself as I started my trip.   Driving along I noticed the store and business addresses had five digits, not the four Sandy had given me, which made me wonder if I was going in the right direction especially when the countdown went from 17000 to 16000.  A few more blocks: 15000, 14000 and then 13000.  Perhaps Sandy had meant 18000.  If that were so, I needed to turn around and go back, but that wouldn’t take me to San Leandro.  The second thought was that downtown San Leandro might have its own numbering system.  I could just keep on driving like Ken always did before AD (which could take hours as he would never stop and ask directions) but with time running out and the price of gasoline I didn’t want to waste my day or the pricey investment recently pumped into my gas tank.

Turning onto a side street I pulled to the curb and took out my cell phone.  “I’ll just call information,” I said to me, dialing 411, and then I heard Information’s recording followed by silence.  “Emil Villa’s restaurant in San Leandro,” I told the mechanical person.  The voice came back rather garbled, mumbling something I didn’t understand.  How do you tell a recording, “Excuse me?  I didn’t hear what you said, but I want the phone number of Emil Villa’s restaurant in San Leandro.”  I believe I repeated it three or four times.  Oh, how I longed to hear a real, human voice.

I grew up with those real, live human voices who seemed to live in the sturdy black telephones with a hand piece weighing at least five pounds.  When the instrument was installed in our San Francisco flat my two sisters and I would race to answer the ring being the first to say, “Hello.”  The call was seldom for any of us.  My mother needed a telephone for her customers to check in for either fitting appointments or to ask if their custom-made garment was finished.  The telephone was not a toy, but we were allowed to answer its ring or use it on occasion for appropriate reasons.  Before long, though, it became part of the family.  The novelty eventually wore off and we girls no longer were interested in racing to see who would answer it first.  Often, and before our teen years, it rang and rang forcing our busy mother to call out, “Would someone please pick up that telephone!”

As technology grew and changed so did the phone.  The first one in our home had a dial, and then the telephone man came and exchanged it for one without a dial.  To reach the right party the pleasant voice of a woman asked, “Number please?”  “HEmlock 6307,” you answered into the mouthpiece, or whatever other phone word and number you wanted to reach.  A few rings and you were connected.  That part hasn’t changed much.

If you didn’t know the number you said to the operator, “Information please.” At no charge another voice looked up your party’s number and gave it to you.  If she couldn’t find the number she might say, “Is that the common spelling?  Let me try again.”  She was so accommodating.  “Yes,” she replied, “that was John Smyth on 47th Avenue.  Not the common spelling let me spell it back to you.”  And she did. You could even ask her for the address of your party.  If available, she gladly shared the information.  However, she was bound by the rules, and sometimes said, “I am sorry, but that’s an unlisted number and I’m not allowed to give it out,” and she didn’t no matter how we coaxed.

For efficiency, the phone company eventually settled on the dial phone with the same courteous women answering your 411 requests when you needed information.  Or, having a different kind of telephone problem by dialing “O” you could speak with another helpful operator whose expertise went well beyond the information operator, and if she couldn’t be of help she connected you with someone who could.

Increasing demands for service and expansion changed the HEmlock to HEmlock 3-6307, eventually the HEmlock part was removed becoming 433 and with more demand and more technology dials changed to push buttons, and area codes, three additional numbers preceded by a one, came into being.  But through all of this 411 was still a real person with a friendly voice, either female or male, who looked up a needed number.  We could even dial POPCORN and find the exact time, which I used at least twice a year as Daylight Savings Time came and went.

Technology (plus time and cost savings – for the phone companies – not us) continued and the world became more efficient (supposedly) with recordings, menus and no person at the other end of the line to help when all I wanted was the phone number of Emil Villa’s Hickory Pit in San Leandro.  I considered hanging up and starting over again, when suddenly the friendly voice of a man answered.

“Hello,” I gratefully said into my tiny, almost weightless phone that fit into my pocket, “I really need the number of Emil Villa’s restaurant in San Leandro,” I pleaded.  “This is Big-O Tires and I don’t have their number,” said my new friend.  I apologized, explaining how I had called information so I could call Emil Villa’s restaurant, find their cross street and meet my friends.  Then I took a chance and said, “You don’t happen to know where Emil Villa’s Hickory Pit is located in San Leandro, do you?”

“I eat there all the time,” he answered.  “You do mean the one downtown on East 14th.”

I was ecstatic. “What’s the cross street?” I asked.

“I think it’s Maud – right downtown.  You can’t miss it on the right-hand side of the street if you’re going north.”

“You are by far the best information operator I’ve spoken with in years.  Thank you so much,” I warbled.

“One more thing you need to know,” he added making sure I was traveling into San Leandro and not in the opposite direction. “If you get the big plate pf ribs, don’t order extra potatoes — way too much food.”

“Excellent bit of information,” I laughed – thanking him one more time.

I folded my tiny phone and put it back in my pocket, pulled out of the side street, turned right and headed north on East 14th.  After all that talk I was starved.  Caregiver’s break day came with a very big bonus and a delightful reminder of how life used to be when it was slower and friendlier – without so much technology.  There are times when I believe we are “over the top” with all of this electronic paraphernalia.  Yet, without that annoying technology and without my handy little cell phone I could still be driving up and down East 14th Street looking for Emil Villa’s Hickory Pit.  Is that a dichotomy or what?

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