Bye Bye 631: Our Area Code Is Maxing Out and Officials Are Stumped

Last week, an employee at the NY State Public Service Commission came running out of an office building screaming “We’re running out of 631! We’re running out of 631!”

Yes, that employee had just discovered that telephone area code 631 would be used up within 19 months. Hard to believe. The bureaucrats sit at their desks all day staring at their computers, and they’d never noticed this.

As a result, the PSC ordered eight separate public meetings in Suffolk County (where 631 resides) during two consecutive days last week to get the opinions of the local citizenry about what to do.

The first took place on Tuesday, July 15, at 1 p.m. in the Maxine S. Postal Auditorium of the Evans K. Griffing Building at 300 Center Drive in Riverhead. It was an informational meeting. Then, at 2 p.m., they had a public forum there. Four hours later, their public statement hearing was in Holbrook at 6:30 p.m., with the informational forum at 7:30 p.m., then on Wednesday in Smithtown at 1 and 2 p.m., and in Huntington Station at 6 and 7 p.m.

So now, as you read this, the PSC is full up with thousands of pages of testimony. They say there are two options.

The first is to overlay a new area code over the old so that when 631 runs out, all new people get the newer number.

The second option is to split Suffolk County in two and let one part of the county keep 631 while the other part gets the newer number.

This is an interesting choice. In the first option, you’ll be able to tell the old-timers from the newcomers. Everyone is suspicious of newcomers. So if you’re a mortgage company wanting to keep people thinking they can trust you, you’ll hold tight to your old number.

The second option, meanwhile, presents an enormous opportunity. The eastern end of the island, all the rural towns of Southold, Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island and Riverhead, have been trying for years to form a new county carved out of Suffolk County. This is our big chance. Give “Peconic County” the new area code. This will mean that everybody in the new county will have to change lots of existing entries for local people in their smartphone directories, but it will be a small price to pay.

I might note that this is not the first time the PSC has confronted this problem. Twenty years ago, all of Long Island was 516. And when that ran out (they noticed it three years ahead), they decided to split the island. The eastern end in Suffolk County got the new number, 631, while Nassau County got to keep the old 516.

If you go back even a bit before that, though, there were not even area codes. Watch any old movie made before 1955. If Marilyn Monroe wants to make a long-distance call, she dials 0 and asks to talk to the long-distance operator. The operator then dials the seven-digit number for her. It was a big deal out here to talk to someone who lived in, say, New York City, by long distance. And it cost a lot.

Also, the first three digits were disguised. There are songs to listen to where you can hear about this. “BEechwood 4-5789” is the name of a song sung by the Carpenters. “You can call me up and have a date any old time,” is the second line of the refrain. An earlier song by one of the big bands in the 1940s was called “PEnnsylvania 6-5000.” In both song titles, those first names stood for two digits. Out here we had EAst Hampton 4, SAg Harbor 5 and MOntauk 8. On a dialing system, the EA stood for 32, the SA stood for 72 and the MO stood for 66. So you had 324 and 725 and 668, which are three local numbers we use today. But I digress.

I think there is a third option to solving the 631 problem. In the last few years, local residents have been fighting the electric company to keep them from putting up big, tall utility poles. A fight about this in Southampton Town resulted in the electric company putting the lines underground for five miles along Scuttlehole Road. Currently, the Town of East Hampton is fighting the electric company about new tall utility poles they are putting up there.

It’s very expensive to put wiring underground. But my idea would solve that.

I suggest we offer a new area code number that you have to pay for. It would be like an American Express Black Card. Everyone would know you’re pretty special.

Unlike credit cards, where special cards have special colors, however, no particular three-digit number is more special than any other. But that could be part of its charm. Only those in the know would know, or to put it another way, everybody would know, and that they knew and that you knew would make it special.

Let’s say the new area code you pay for is 799. Let’s say its cost is $1,000 a year. So everybody keeping 631 and not buying 799 would be considered boobs.

After a short while, those who felt humiliated enough would reach in their wallets to divest themselves of their humble 631 and buy the 799. They’d now have to change all their stationery, and they’d have to change all their business cards, and they’d have to get all their friends and business associates and family to change all their smartphone contact directories for them. Wow. They’re now pretty important. And everybody would know it.

As a result of this not-very-subtle head trip, the number of people keeping the 631 would begin to decline, making more room for new people to use the 631 without brushing up against its ceiling. You’d move into town. You’d get the old stained and soiled 631. And you’d immediately want the shiny 799. You’d just have to round up the bucks.

So all this money would be coming in to the Public Service Commission, and you just know where I am going to tell you that this money ought to be spent.

You know, I’ve been writing stories for this newspaper since 1960. And this story reminds me of another story I wrote years ago, when we had rotary phones and you had to dial a number by putting your index finger into the proper hole and turning it clockwise. There were also, at that time, lots of public pay phones. I don’t have to tell you about public pay phones.

So I needed to call somebody who lived in East Hampton. I went over to the pay phone, took out my quarter, took the phone off the hook, put the quarter in and reached out to dial 324. And then I saw there was a big moth asleep in the 2 hole. What to do? I had to think quickly, before the phone timed out my quarter.

Who did I know who had a phone number that would not require my bothering the moth? Had to be a friend with a phone number without a 2. Couldn’t be the person I had wanted to call in East Hampton, couldn’t be Sag Harbor.

So I called someone in Montauk and I gave that moth a ride.

It woke him up, but when it ended he went back to sleep. I think he liked it.

Double Selfie Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

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