In our society of rising costs and declining service, yet another valuable service is being wrenched away from the consumer.  Yes, our telephone company, SBC, is ending its Namefinder Plus service.  For 30 years, this valuable service was available exclusively in the Chicago area.  Naturally, those who used it didn’t call it Namefinder Plus.  We called it “796,” which is short for the entire phone number 796-9600.

If you think Caller ID was one of the great advances in Western Civilization, than you haven’t been “796-ing” phone numbers.  This system allowed you to punch in phone numbers to find out whom they belonged to, how they spelled their name, where they lived and how they spelled their street name.  For private detectives, like myself, and police officers it was a crucially important service.
Say you’re a cop or a P.I. on the street, and someone has just given you the phone number of someone you wanted to locate.  You just called 796-9600, punched in the phone number and, in most cases, drove right to the person’s address.  Not only will I miss the service, Chicago detectives lamented the loss of the “cheapest and simplest tool we have.”
 “Cheap” is the word.  It only cost thirty cents to dial the service and it gave you two, yes two, listings per call.  Now, consumers will be forced to dial 411 for $1.99 a call to get the same information. 

The service didn’t just benefit police and P.I.’s, the average person could use it to put a name and address to the phone number they discovered floating around in their pocket.  Or, if you lost a person’s address, you could punch in their number to get it back.  Or possibly a person gave you their work number and you wanted to know where they were employed. The service had multiple uses and I used to dial it about twenty times a day.

I would be greeted by a clear, computer-generated female voice.  “Welcome to Namefinder Plus,” she always said warmly, “Please enter the Area Code, followed by the telephone number.”  Veteran users like myself didn’t listen to the whole greeting.  As soon as she said “Wel-,” I’d start punching.  As wonderful as the computer woman was, her computer-generated male partner was a mess.  He mumbled in low muddled tones that you could barely understand.  He couldn’t pronounce Polish names properly, either.

So, after he was done speaking, I’d punch “1” to have him repeat it.  Then I’d punch “2” to make him spell it.  Sometimes, I couldn’t even make out the name of the street, so I’d hit “3” to have him spell that, too.  If you punched these numbers enough times, a human, sensing your frustration, would come on to read you the information.  After you got it, it was time to punch “4” for another listing.

When I tell people about this terrible loss of service, they suggest I use the Internet. This is a good idea, except that I DON’T HAVE INTERNET IN MY CAR.  Many police officers also lack computers in their squads.  The demise of Namefinder Plus is yet another sign of our crumbling civilization.  Gosh, I’m going to miss that computer lady.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.