Friends in Numbers

When you live on an island, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself in unlikely relationships. Sure, there are the regulars in your life – family, friends, the people you work with – but then there are the others, the unexpecteds.

You get to know some of these unexpecteds because you run into them constantly, as if your schedules have been mysteriously synchronized. You see them in the morning while walking your dog, then “Hello again,” you’re both taking stock of the red peppers at Cronig’s Market. You dash into the library to return some books and there they are, “Oh, hi.” You realize you’re developing a lasting bond when you both show up at the emergency room in the middle of the night. “Will you be up for walking in the morning?” you ask.

Other unexpected relationships have developed on the Vineyard because of our phone system. For decades the Island had just three phone exchanges, 627, 693, and 645: 627 covered Edgartown and Chappaquiddick; 693 covered Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury; and 645 covered Chilmark and Aquinnah. They all start with a six, but then valiantly verge off with different numbers. Soon enough, people started thinking of themselves as 693s or 627s. The 693s have been known to fling a friendly barb, “That’s so 645 of you!”

All was well in the land, until 1990 when 696 came on the scene: 696 seemed perilously close to 693, and indeed it was. Fingers programmed after years of dialing 693 had to retrain themselves. They didn’t always find success. And so it came to be that the new 696ers unexpectedly started getting to know the 693ers.

I, for one, live in a 696 household. For years we shared the last four digits of our phone number with Oliver and Theresa, who live in a 693 household. We received calls for them; they got our calls. We became quite fond of Oliver and Theresa, in spite of the fact we hadn’t actually met them. My husband would call home and say, “I just spoke to Theresa; she sends her regards.” While my husband has many talents, his fingers seemed unable to successfully conquer the 693 to 696 switch-over, so he spoke to Oliver or Theresa several times a week for a couple of years. After some years of talking to Oliver and Theresa and their very nice friends, we discussed inviting them over for dinner, but for some reason we never did.

At some point we realized that we had stopped receiving calls for them.

They must have moved.

We missed them.

We figured the relationship was over, but we were glad to have had them in our lives for the time we did.

The seasons came and went. The Island’s newest phone exchange, 939, didn’t get as much notice – its impact diffused, I suppose, by the influx of cell-phone exchanges.

Then last summer, at a beach barbecue, I was introduced to someone by the name of Oliver. “Are you Oliver, as in Oliver and Theresa?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I’m Kate, of Chris and Kate,” I said.

We hugged.

The joy of the unexpecteds

Kate Feiffer is an author, filmmaker, and humorist who lives in Oak Bluffs and writes regularly for the magazine about Vineyard idiosyncrasies.