I was thinking about Budd Zzzyp today. If you lived in Manhattan in the 70s, you’ve thought about him, too. His was the next-to-last name in the white pages. The last name on that page was something unreal and unpronounceable, made entirely of Zs and Ys. Budd Zzyzp was if not exactly an acquaintance at least a recognizable person, reliably occupying the same space one year after the other. For a city full of transients, that was comforting stability.
Some years later in a little throwaway filler in The New Yorker magazine, I found out that Budd Zzzyp wasn’t real. The name was listed there by a well-known NY personage named Buddy Jacobson. The occasion of this revelation was that Buddy had been arrested for the grisly murder of a romantic rival and Budd Zzzyp, a device to help people remember when they wanted to contact him, would be listed no more.
Googling “Budd Zzzyp” doesn’t net much, but looking for “Buddy Jacobson” leads to a book that was written about the whole sordid thing. Horse racing, drug smuggling, a “modeling” agency that shared a phone number listing with Budd Zzzyp, romance of a sort followed by the murder, an escape from a NYC prison with a manhunt that ended in California 40 days later where Buddy was taking skating lessons in anticipation of buying a roller rink – that sounds like it’s worth a dollar from a used book site, doesn’t it?
I ordered the book today. This is why I have nothing to say when people ask me what I’m reading. I can’t easily explain my taste in reading material to the Oprah Bookclub people or to those who are busy with the paperback best sellers from the airport bookstore.
All of this phone directory nostalgia reminded me of Mrs. Alice Coolbaugh. I can’t forget her, either.
Flash back to Wilkes-Barre, Pa circa 1968-ish. My mother came home from the dress factory one day with one of those little math tricks that ends up in a predictable number. This isn’t mathematically correct – just an example here – but it was one of those things like “Take the number of letters in the month you were born, multiply by 5, add 2 and divide by three. The answer is 18.” And the answer was 18. “Now” she said, “take the phone book and open it up to page 18. The 18th name on the 18th page is Mrs. Alice Coolbaugh.”
Sure enough, Mrs. Alice Coolbaugh. Somewhere along the line, my mother revealed that the answer to the math trick was always 18 so she already knew the name that would be revealed at the end of the trick. Even then, I didn’t have enough interest in math to explore the multiply/add/divide logic but I did try it out one more time on the sly using a different month as a starting point and it was still Alice Coolbaugh. I lost interest in it after that, but I was sufficiently impressed to remember that name for the rest of my life.
So that’s all there is to the story. But I was unwilling to give up my seat on the nostalgia train, I typed her name into the Google search box, and would you believe that the very same woman is the #1 search result? To my surprise, there are 11 pages of results for “Alice Coolbaugh”.
Maybe it wasn’t a math trick after all – maybe she’s the 18th name on the 18th page of phone books all across America. You’d better go look at yours.