310 dialers are feeling overloaded on overlay

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We are numb from numbers. We are drained by digits. And get ready for even more memory meltdown and finger fatigue in the months ahead. On July 17, Malibu (and nearby communities) will have two area codes — 310 and 424. Existing phone lines will keep their current numbers and area codes, but newcomers will have the new 424 designation.

How will you know who is who and which is which? You won’t, says the California Public Utilities Commission, not until you look it up in the phone book (and the new ones, including 424, won’t be until after the millennium).

The aggravation became clear a few Saturdays ago when residents got a rude awakening. It went something like this — you pick up the phone to make a reservation at Tony’s — a number you know by heart and have dialed for years — and instead of the popular proprietor, you get — We’re sorry. You must first dial a one or zero plus the area code when dialing this number. Please hang up and try your call again.

It was our first introduction to the wacky world of 310 overlay. All of a sudden, all those seven-digit numbers we took for granted must be preceded by the number one, plus the area code.

“It’s such a pain. I can’t believe this is happening,” puffs Patricia Schumann. “It’s absurd.” Elaine Perkins was equally irked when she suddenly found herself off line. “I wanted to check my e-mail, and I kept getting this annoying recording,” she recalls. “I thought my modem was screwed up.” The change sent Perkins and other AOL and Internet users scrambling for their Macintosh manuals in order to reprogram their computers.

The CPUC describes the overlay as the “best long-term solution” to increasing demand for phone numbers due to our increasing appetite for pagers, cell phones and fax machines.

“Our objective is to provide customers with a system that can grow with minimal disruption,” said PUC Commissioner Josiah Neeper. But just try explaining that to Schumann. “It was bad enough just getting used to 323,” she says of the new prefix which split L.A.’s 213 zone last year. “Now, I have to dial 11 digits just to call my next-door neighbor.”

The switch over is especially jarring for longtime locals who once prided themselves on handing out a mere four digits as everyone in the entire city had a telephone number beginning with 456. Then came 457, then 317, then 589.

So now, in addition to your social security number, mother’s birthday, ATM pin number, AT&T pin number, AOL number, bank account number and number of fairies that can dance on a pin, you’ll have more numbers to store in whatever happens to be left of your random access memory.

It almost makes you long for the days of rotary dials.