‘I shall live forever and ever!’ he cried grandly. ‘I shall find out thousands and thousands of things. I shall find out about people and creatures and everything that grows—and I shall never stop making Magic.’ –Colin from The Secret Garden
When I walk down the street I keep my eyes open for phone booths. I find one, go inside and pick up the Dex yellow pages swinging on a silver line just above the floor that’s littered with dead leaves and old soda cans. I skim the pages of the old book— it was once used for its powers of alphabetical lists and orientation. Now it hangs like a jaundiced corpse, forgotten on a scaffold.
The yellow pages advertise barber shops and jewelry stores from the downtown district to urban sprawl. There are smiling, family-owned RV companies and car dealerships showing new cars, now wrinkled with the damp. I turn to the white pages and flip through the list of names—Kari Bush, Gary Caldwell, Steve Eliot, Terri Hadbrook, Rhonda Jerome…
I stop in the J section and notice that there are fifteen Clyde Jones’ listed in the area. I can never predict what any one Clyde Jones will be like, but I know that each of them have unique experiences of life. Every Clyde has a different perspective that changes with his address. Every Jones is as unique in design as the list of phone numbers.
An imagination can wake up and stretch in these musty pages. Donna Thomas on page 123 could have been the old woman I saw in Vons, sampling seedless grapes. Rick Tindol might be the squat man who cut me off in Sunday morning traffic—making me swear under my breath before pulling into the church parking lot. Derrik Uzaro might be an excessively tan man who lives on Belfast Avenue and refurbishes cherry red Mustang convertibles.
In the H section Jose Hernandez could have one wife, two kids and a three bedroom house on Fairhaven Street where his four terriers bark all night. The barking might drive Gerry Reesus on page 141 crazy. This might be why Gerry always dumps his lawn clippings on the Hernandez side of the fence.
The white pages are like reading the first chapters of Chronicles—the most skipped part of the Bible. Those verses are full of monotonous, outdated information—“so and so was the father of another guy, and that guy is the father of another name not remembered by anyone.” The Bible is not content with just the big names like Abraham and David; it dedicates chapters to names as irrelevant as the ones in the white pages.
List of names are like collection of blank slates, and they’re filled in by knowledge of a personal life. If I imagine the daily life of Clyde Jones, Jenny Smith, and Jose Hernandez I find three separate sets of cares, expressions, likes, interests, loves, senses of humor, worries, habits, addictions, regrets, evils, and secrets. This is not to mention the various arrays of eye colors, facial expressions, hair styles, and liver conditions that paint the canvas of a named life. These names form human contact and relationships, moving and reacting like molecules in the city centers. Lists always give way to more lists—individuals turn into nations. The etceteras go to infinity.
White pages confine and shackle a name to a number and address. Insults and categories are also used to confine—they overshadow the immensity of a name. “Doug Ryan” could be the signature of an artist, architect, construction worker, lawyer, or janitor. He could sing like an angel, look ugly, score low on an IQ test, or have a “beaming” personality. He could be a heavy drinker or a religious zealot. When I call Doug Ryan an idiot, liberal, redneck, atheist, obese, pretentious, clown, gay, or drunk and leave satisfied with any of these as a wholesale description, then I demean the expansive space— I contain the endless possibility that a name accommodates when it’s first given.
It isn’t surprising that people assort and group infinite things. We get overwhelmed—it’s in our nature to classify. We catalogue the night sky like the white pages with constellations. We try to contain Nature in phylum, kingdoms, flora, and fauna. We generalize miles of vegetation and mountain ranges in paintings, photos, and video. The mysteries and statutes of God are assorted into our theologies, sermons, music, and conferences. It’s natural to try and comprehend inexhaustible things, but once they’re contained, minds become restless.
I continue thumbing through the Dex pages. This is a magical book in a glass treasure chest. In it I find a cast list of players in a drama full of love, hatred, beauty, murder, angst, exhales of sobs, blowing of birthday candles, memory, divorce, marriage, suicide, birth, accidents, romance, gunshots, lust, intrigue, cardiac arrest, miraculous recoveries, cancer, drugs, alienation, community, play, work, betrayal, and redemption.
I take a deep breath. I fill in the gaps with imagination. I read it like a biblical genealogy. If Ur of the Chaldeans had a phone book, Abram and Sarai would have been two blank names in the registry.
It shows God’s imagination is as strong as his sense of humor when he is willing to make two names in the white pages a mother and father of nations.