A Vintage Way to Find Sources

Published March 11, 2018 | 5 min read

What’s the 411?

No, the answer isn’t “information” or the name of a gossipy celeb TV show (minus the question mark).

It’s a phrase with origins in the way-back machine, before iPhones or smart phones, when people spoke on bulky, clunky devices, found only in the home or office, tethered to a chord.

And could be used to call a friendly operator when you needed someone’s phone number.

Dialing 411 would put you in touch with a real live human being. “Directory assistance, how can I help you?” That’s the greeting you got. You could ask her or him for your friend’s home number. Or your teacher’s. Anybody listed in the phone book. It was very helpful.

Well, guess what? You can still do that!

I make use of 411 regularly. It’s an amazing option, and one that comes in quite handy when you’re looking for someone for a story.

I recently wanted to reach a witness to a crime, a man with a somewhat unusual last name, who I knew lived in a relatively large town in New Jersey. So I dialed 411 on my cell.

I got an automated voice asking for the last name and town. But when the system didn’t find an exact match, an operator came on the line. She said she didn’t have anyone with that name in that location but saw a listing for two other people with the same last name, different first names, who shared an address.

She texted me the information—names and numbers for both men, along with the address where they lived—then dialed the first number for me, connecting me instantly to a guy who turned out to be the brother of the man I was trying to reach.

Couldn’t have been easier.

So make the most of this old-school resource.

It’s free, it’s fast and sometimes it’s the only way to get the 411.

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