Friday, January 28, 2011

The Total Worth of a Phone Book

On a visit back home a few weeks ago, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my wife and my grandfather, enjoying a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sweet rolls, bacon, cereal, bacon, orange juice, coffee, and bacon. We were discussing my old red truck, currently residing in an old cow lot at my grandfathers house. The poor old machine hasn't been in working order for a few years, and really needs to be sold off, for repair or for salvage. As we discussed the options, my grandpa suggested I call a few salvage yards and get prices on it. I agreed, and before I'd finished my fourth egg, he tossed an ancient tome on the table beside my plate. The book was thick, with inscriptions from lawyers and insurance agents on the front cover. It had a map of four or five counties on the cover, and when I broke the seal of the dusty manual, I parsed through veil-thin pages. Names, businesses, and the occasional image of a toothy-grinned doctor or chiropractor.

After a few annoyed moments of searching for the salvage yards, I gave up and opted for Google maps on my Blackberry Curve. Fifteen seconds later, I had four auto dealers at my disposal.

School Books

Every year at Monmouth College, the faithful folks at Yellow Pages would drop pallets of referential tree carcass in the mail room. There they would sit, lonely reminders of the ephemeral days of printed names and numbers. Last name, first name, number. A-Z of useless information, or knowledge more readily available at the tips of our fingers via the QWERTY keys.

Where trees go to die
My friends and I began noticing how slowly the phone books moved out of the postal center. As a sort of joke, we'd walk in to check the mail, and exclaim with excitement,

“Oh, look, phone books! I'll take two, one for me and one for my roommate. Don't you want one, Adam?”

We single-handedly decimated the pile of shunned books. In all reality, we were simply transferring the stack from the mail room to the dorm room, where they gathered dust in the corner behind the door. But we had the satisfaction of giving this leaning tower of pages a home. We'd reinvigorated a purpose into the outdated product. That would be the end of the eye sore in the mail room.

Then one day we stopped in to check for care packages and phone bills. As we rounded the corner, we were chagrined by a new stack of gleaming yellow covers. An overture of The Cat Came Back played in our brains as we stared at the useless stacks of fiber and ink.

The Gauntlet had been thrown down. And we accepted the challenge with eagerness.

You've Been Yellow-Paged

One might ask the obvious question:

What do you do with 400+ phone books?

But I would like to address the point from a different angle:

What don't you do with 400+ phone books?
One day, Brian and I were sitting in our room, doing nothing-in-particular. It was a lazy day, one that breeds mischief. Mid-afternoon we decided to see what our friend across the hall, Dustin, was up to. Dustin, when in his room, not only left the door unlocked, but generally wide open. We meandered across the linoleum, only to find the door ajar and our relaxed friend fast asleep in his bed. The room was unusually clean – Dustin had friends coming in that night, and had spiffed up for the occasion. Brian and I looked at each other, and immediately knew that we had an opportunity.

With the utmost stealth and care, we slowly moved every phone book in our possession into Dustin's room. We placed them on his desk. We stacked them on the TV. We tucked them into his drawers and slid them under his pillow. There were phone book mosaics on the floor, and piles in front of the door. The entire room was awash in yellow covers.

Upon completion of Operation Yellow Pages, we resumed our lackadaisical afternoon in our own quarters. A few hours later, the silence was rudely interrupted with bellows of rage. Our art project had been discovered. I'd like to quote Dustin's review of the piece, but it wouldn't make any sense, and the FCC frowns upon such colorful language. Books came flourishing through our doorway as Dustin pelted our room with phone listings. After the dust had settled, we crept into the hallway and cleaned up the aftermath.

The Defenestration of Phone Book

As most do, the school year soon approached the end. As we prepared for finals, summer break, and moving day, we realized that we had over five hundred phone books in our possession. We wracked our brains for possible extradition, but came up with few solutions that lacked the pizazz and style we we looking for. After months of practical jokes, jumbo Jenga, and building forts, we couldn't just throw the books in the trash!

That's when we devised Operation Book Drop.

The plan was simple at first. Duct tape the books into a single, giant package, carry the behemoth to the top of the Haldeman-Thiessen Science building, and throw it off. It would be an experiment in velocity, force, and structural stability of Yellow Pages phone books. But then we started working on the logistics.

Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center
Problem #1 – Five hundred phone books were heavy. Too heavy to move, in fact. Not only that, but they were also too big to fit through the rooftop hatch.

Solution – Tape the books into one hundred book bundles, creating a manageable stack to move. Once on the roof, duct tape does the rest.

Problem #2 – How do two guys move five bundles of phone books across campus without alerting attention from the keystone cop security force?

Solution – Assemble a team of trusted friends, and plan the route. First, we'd move the bundles into my 1993 Mazda truck. Nonchalantly, we'd drive the bundles to the science building parking lot, back it up to the rear entrance, were an allied chemistry Teaching Assistant would be waiting with keys and a cart. From there, we'd use the elevator to get to the top floor, the hatch to the roof, and then? Bombs away.

The plan was set. The elements were in place. It was perfect.


The drop was to occur at midnight. We spent all day preparing, going over the plans and the alibis. If caught, we had equations and calculations on hastily drawn notepads.

“What are talking about? This is a school sanctioned project! You mean you didn't get a memo from the dean? Here are our notes from class.”

Fool-proof. Or at least security-proof. There were two teams. Three people were on the ground unit – two to keep the sidewalk below clear of unsuspecting pedestrians, and one to catch the experiment on film. Up above, there were four of us – one filming, three pushing the package to its untimely doom.

The post-experiment plan was equally simple and ingenious. After the drop, we'd scramble back into the interior of the science center and split up, taking cover in the nearest computer lab, inconspicuously working on final projects and minding our own business. When the dust had settled, we'd drive the Mazda onto the lawn, pickup the decimated books, and disappear into the night.

But when the sun had set, a steady drizzle took its place in the atmosphere. The precipitation proved problematic, as the books, once in the truck, became overwhelmingly heavy. The rain also meant that security remained in the shelter of their pope-mobile golf carts, changing the timing of the routes we'd been charting all week and throwing off our plans.

When we got to the science center, we were met with the cart. By that time, the books were drenched, and starting to separate in the small bundles. We got them inside, and began reinforcing as we ascended to the top level.

The hallway was dark as we crept from the elevator, towards the southeast stairwell that housed the hatch to the roof. The exit signs cast an eerie red ambiance across the white brick and tile floors. The only sound was the squeak of our shoes and the faint rattle of the cart under the weight of the payload.

Once in the stair, we sent one member up to the top. Then it was a brigade of books, hauling one up, then handing it off to the man at the top. We repeated the process until all the books and all the teammates were in position.

We crept to the far side of the building and began creating the massive brick of Yellow Pages. When we slid it to the edge of the building and peered over, we were shocked by the sight.

Five stories below us, in an arc at a safe distance, a dozen students milled about the lawn of the building. They were all peering up at the building, as if expecting to see something.

Someone had leaked the plan! This could compromise the entire mission! If the security heard the impact of the books, they'd have dozens of witnesses to question! They crew below would be immediately implicated, and the drop crew would likely be singled out by association. This was not good. Just then, the slow put-put of a golf cart sounded its presence in the distance. We all dropped to our stomachs and assessed the situation.

“Who told someone about the drop?” I demanded?

Slowly, we all admitted to leaking the information. To our girlfriends, our roommates, our lab partners. The word had gotten out. We checked our watches. Midnight. The drop was supposed to happen any minute. But we weren't ready! We could hear the second security cart approaching. We called the guys down below to check the mood at ground zero.

“There are a lot of people down here. Who leaked?” He asked uncertainly.

“There's no time to think about that! We're doing this thing, OK? Are you guys ready down there?”

“As ready as we'll ever be.”

“Ok. We're going to time the next round of security, then go. We'll call once we've figured it out.”

It took forty five minutes for the security teams to complete another round. It felt like an eternity in the wind and drizzle atop the science center. Finally, we were ready. We called the ground crew, got in place, and started rolling tape. On the count of three, we heaved the package of duct tape and paper over the edge. Then we watched.

The payload seemed to move in slow motion as it tumbled down the building. It hit the side once, ricocheted away from the brick and started splitting into two pieces. As it spun through the air, the revolving elements gained speed, until the slow motion free-fall caught up with the rest of reality.

As the phone books crashed back to the world, the sound of a shotgun pierced the wet silence. The books shredded as if an explosive had been contained within. A spray of printed paper scraps shot out fifteen feet in every direction, leaving the air with vestiges of ticker-tape, falling like snow in the spring air.

Immediately phase two began. We scrambled to the hatch of the building, and darted in different directions, as rats from a sinking ship. We slid into computer chairs and breathlessly logged onto computers, the thrill of our accomplishment still reeling in our brains. Now was the true test – Could we get away with it.

We waited. And waited. Any second, the belabored trot of the overweight security guards would be heard down the hall. A squeaky shoe, wheezy gasp, some indication that the red-faced enforcers were on the case.

But there was nothing.

Slowly, we reconvened at ground zero. The carnage was widespread. As we assessed the situation, we realized that security still had not even been by to witness the aftermath. So I drove my Mazda onto the lawn, we shoveled the tattered remains into the bed, and we drove into the night.

Just as we'd planned.

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