The best Rolodex I ever saw belonged to Tom Alex, the dayside police reporter for the Des Moines Register.
You needed two years of CrossFit just to twist the wheel.
When one managed to crank the wheel, business cards rained out.
Most pages had six or seven entries hastily crossed out with the new contact shakily scrawled in with blue or black ink.
I worked as the night police reporter for several years and thumbed my way through that Rolodex many times.
I worked as a newspaper reporter for 27 years, but I never had a Rolodex.
Younger readers, if there is such a creature, will need to Google Rolodex.
I embraced technology and sought to be what edgy tech magazines such as Yahoo! Internet Life and Wired magazines called an “early adopter.”
Younger readers will also have to Google “magazines.”
I used a cutting-edge Palm Pilot as my Rolodex. A Palm Pilot was just like an iPhone except it didn’t make phone calls and the screen cracked when dropped on a bar floor.
There was also no texting or social media.
There was a Tetris app.
My friend Jeff also owned a Palm Pilot. Jeff showed me how to upload databases into the device.
He uploaded the phone number and address of every Register newsroom employee. It was more than 200 names.
The data had a quirk. Everyone’s name was in ALL CAPS. This was in 1999.
I note this because I decided the contacts list needed cleaning. I realized how old some of the names were because they remained in ALL CAPS.
Over the years, my contacts list swelled to more than 5,200 people.
Some were duplicates, of course, but I found this task of winnowing down my bloated list more troubling than attacking a poorly organized linen closet.
Some of my contacts were dead.
I am not so nostalgic as to keep a dead person in my contacts in effort to keep their memory alive.
Yet when I came to my old friend and mentor Steve Buttry or my buddy Ken Fuson, the best writer any of us will ever know, I hesitated to delete either. It somehow made what has been final for years that much more final.
So it goes.
Other people deleted much easier.
One was a murderer. I knew him as a community-minded south Des Moines lawyer.
A few years back, he killed his wife and two sons and then himself at their home in Minneapolis.
There were a lot of cop contacts. I’ve been out of the journalism game for more than two years. I haven’t needed to call a public information officer in the middle of the night as a civilian.
Also, I think one or two of those guys are dead, too.
One of the cops that stung to delete was my old friend Dan Dusenbery. A Marine during the Vietnam War, he worked his whole career as a patrol cop.
Dusenbery had the best cop stories.
My favorite was the time he and his partner were ordered to clear out one of the city parks where teenagers were parking to make out.
His partner got the idea to work harder, not smarter.
They pulled into the park and flashed their spotlight into some nearby trees.
After a while, one of the kids asked what they were doing.
Dusenbery and his partner told the kids a murderer was on the loose and might be hiding in those woods.
Pretty soon there was a string of taillights leading out of the park. Dusenbery and his partner never had to get out of the car.
Dusenbery died a few years back. He was the kind of guy you hope is a cop in your hometown.
I trimmed out several former girlfriends or people I wished had been girlfriends or people who wanted me to be their boyfriend. That last pot was the smallest.
I felt pangs of nostalgia, but not hard enough to keep the numbers. What would we talk about?
The hardest contacts to let go were estranged friends — or people I’d had a falling out with over the years.
One guy got mad at me about a joke I made on Facebook. He vowed never to speak to me again. He’s stuck with that. I’ve respected his wishes.
Another was a best friend, as close as I imagine brothers to be.
But misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and my own guilt put a gap between us that has grown into a chasm with years.
By the time I was done, I had whittled the 5,200 down to a manageable 250.
I put down my phone feeling a bit cleansed — as if this minor exercise in digital cleaning served to knock some of the detritus off my soul.
Alas, the next morning I awoke to discover some unknown restore feature on my smartphone put all the contacts I deleted back on — even the murderer.
I bet this never happened to Tom Alex, who left his Rolodex behind the day he retired and hasn’t seen it since.
Former journalist and future teacher Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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