Every once in a while I make the mistake of giving someone my AOL email address, a move frequently met with mild ridicule. “You still have AOL?” they ask with a certain incredulity — even strangers I am interacting with on a professional level can’t seem to resist. It makes no difference when I explain I can’t bear to part with the only email address that bears my name. It is as if I admitted I still pen letters in longhand or keep an address book (I do). I can just imagine the smirk if they knew I also still have not one, but four Rolodexes.
Three are pretty standard, mostly news biz contacts gathered over the years. But it’s the oldest, the scratched rectangle of plastic with its smoke-tinted cover that holds the memories, the stories. I turn to it only once in a blue moon, largely out of the need for diversion — such as when I am supposed to be writing but the words don’t come. Most of these people I will never talk to again, let alone see. Some are no longer on this Earth. A couple I simply don’t like. Regardless, I flip back that lid and I am instantly in another era — the days when I was a travel writer. A time — little more than a decade ago — when on a regular basis, I’d find an invitation to travel somewhere on someone else’s dime.
Under A, I find Anchorage and the rare individual I actually do keep in touch with. Following him is a gent by the name of James Allen and even though his contact information has been obsolete for nearly as long as I’ve had the card, I can’t bring myself to throw it away. I met James in New Orleans’ Jackson Square where he sat at a table alongside the other psychics, tarot card readers and varied clairvoyants. James told me he was an astrologer and psychic, and invited me to sit — despite the fact that I did not have near the $60 he charged for a reading. My guess is he probably hoped he’d end up in my story. After asking me a few questions, he consulted his thick book of astrology, then proceeded to tell me things about myself that were absolutely spot on. How he knew what he did still baffles me, and I’m sure one of the reasons I hold onto his card is in hopes I may one day stumble upon him again.
After James, there’s a card for a magazine that no longer exists and then a card for a woman I traveled with who was an absolute — rhymes with witch. There’s a card for a travel writer I met only once, but hit it off with instantly. Not long after, I learned that he left for a trip to Greece with some sort of illness, and died in a hospital there. There are cards from the PR people who invited me to their resorts, cities, countries, the business card from the hotel I stayed at on my first visit to Paris, and tucked in with so many travel contacts, one from the dentist I haven’t seen since at least 2000.
There’s one from Michael, a former Toronto Star foreign correspondent, who I traveled with by rail through Switzerland. He told me about his days covering some war-torn country and the photo he has of himself in a hotel room with two cigarettes blazing in the ashtray alongside a tumbler of whisky and the computer that passed for a laptop back in the day. Not far after him is another Michael, this one my editor when I covered the World AIDS Conference in Berlin in 1993. He assumed because of my last name that I was Jewish, as was he, and confided that he liked me in particular because unlike the other women covering the conference, I shaved my armpits. I think it might please him to know I still do.
You probably wonder why on Earth I bother keeping these relics. I can only say that yes, of course, computers, phones, tablets and the like are much more efficient for storing such information. But I also know that no cold data in black and white will ever quite evoke the same memory as the well-worn card of a psychic in Jackson Square or the image of a smoky room, a whisky neat and an era we’ll doubtful ever know again.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.