The key card to room 522 at the Hilton was not working. After inserting it for the fifth or sixth time and having it mock me with its whirling noise and red light, I surrendered to the grim reality that I would have to go back downstairs and request another key. Then I thought I heard a toilet flush inside the room. I high tailed it down the hall, jumped in the elevator, and kindly requested a new room from the apologetic desk clerk. Maybe he would upgrade me for my trouble and psychological pain of almost walking in on another unsuspecting guest.
My new room was just two doors down from the original one. As I approached it, I could see that it would be the same size as my original standard room. I sighed. It didn’t matter much. I was only going to be sleeping there. I wasn’t throwing a party. I inserted the key card into the slot and was pleased to see the happy green light that meant I could enter. As I pushed the door open, I glanced up at the room number.
The recognition was immediate. I had unlocked and walked through door 526 thousands of times before. It was my dorm room number freshman year at college – and a number I hadn’t thought about in 25 years. But there I was, hundreds of miles and a few lifetimes away from that door, and, like hearing New Order or smelling the strawberry shampoo I favored that year, I was whisked back to a time that was so formative for me. I moved into 526 English House as one person – and moved out another. I lost a high school boyfriend, and gained a college sweetheart (or two) in that room. I made decisions there, both good and bad, that changed my life for better and worse. But it was the number that brought me back there.
My reverie continued as I sat in the hotel bar alone that night. I put out a Facebook note about my experience, tagging my freshman roommate who quickly responded that she couldn’t believe I remembered the room number. How could I forget, I thought? But then another friend commented that she still remembers her high school locker combination, a number I couldn’t begin to recall if the world depended on it. (Forgetting my high school locker combination is one of my recurring stress dreams, as matter of fact.) Was it the repetition of use or the intensity of the days that determined how deeply etched these digits were in our memories?
What other numbers could I recall with ease? And how did it feel to pull them up?
353-3592 was our phone number when I was a child. I answered that white push button corded phone hanging in our kitchen before my parents divorced and we got a new number – 328-5275. A year before we moved out, my older sister got her own phone line 356-6196, which I was allowed to use when she deemed me worthy and didn’t need the line herself. I would call my best friend Lisa – 356-1226. Sometimes I would ring my grandmother – 543-5077.
My school bus was #7 until we moved; then it was #18, a number that brought me home at to 2211 Aspen Circle, a life that was far different than the one I had at 233 Fawn Hill Road. I remember learning multiplication tables and borrowing the trick my best friend used for memorizing 6×7. Her Dad at the time was 42. The zip code to write the kids at Zoom was 02134.
After 526 English House, I moved into an off campus house at 3928 Spruce – a home that was referred to by my roommates and me just by its number.
With each number, I was pulled back to vivid recollections of who I was, what I did, who was with me, and how I felt at the time. And for that evening, I felt so grateful for the unexpected journey down a myriad of memory lanes.
There was a strange pleasure in pulling those numbers from a recessed, hidden place in my mind, like the victory you feel when reaching WAY beneath the sofa to grab that sock that has been missing for weeks. The joy lies in the realization that you are still able to stretch back that far, but also in the fact that you really missed that sock. It had value to you, even though you didn’t realize it was gone until the moment you spotted it way back there.
I wonder if my sons will have the same pleasure years from now. I’m not sure they have even memorized their present day phone number, because all they do now is push the contact button that says “home.” But maybe they won’t need the prompt with so many of their memories preserved online. For them, recall will be a search engine exercise.
Well, there’s always their first Facebook password. Here’s hoping it sticks.If you feel so inclined, share what numbers you remember from your youth — and what they meant to you — in the comments. I would love to hear about them.