City Journal: Wrong Number

The perils of Boston’s worst phone extension.

It’s tough not to take it personally: You start a new job, your coworkers ring your phone, and then hang up. All day long. So it went for Eliot Yaffa when he started at the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future. And so it goes for everybody in town cursed with Boston’s unluckiest phone extension: 161.

The cause of the headache is simple: Employees saddled with the extension are deluged with hang-ups that occur when some knucklehead down the hall forgets to dial 9 (or its equivalent) to get an outside line. Instead he punches in 1-6-1-7 and is immediately put through to someone like Yaffa. No sooner does the ringing start than the panicked hang-up follows. “It’s like a phantom, almost,” Yaffa says.

Those hasty hang-ups are often not the face-savers that the misdialer thinks they may be. Considering how common caller ID is in the modern office phone system, those workers with the 161 extension likely know exactly who the boneheads are. And they’re usually the same people, says Lisa Durant, whom City Journal caught up with on her very last day at the dreaded extension, working a desk at the Salvation Army’s Boston headquarters. By early afternoon, four of Durant’s coworkers had already mistakenly phoned her. She’s relishing her reassignment to the Lynn office—complete with new digits that’ll spare her the nuisance of constantly running back to her desk to answer accidental calls.

It doesn’t have to be this way: Dialing 1 isn’t necessary within much of Greater Boston, because 617 calls are local. People just do it out of habit (an unintended consequence of the 10-digit numbers that we, like all major metropolitan areas, have to use).

Phenomena like this aren’t lost on phone system developers, many of whom, hoping to head off aggravation, lay out suggestions for clients on the seemingly not-so-intricate management of telephone extensions. A manual for one local system, TeleVantage, even uses Boston as an example. “If 1-617 is a commonly dialed prefix for your location,” the manual reads, “do not assign extension 161.”

But not everyone listens. Place a call, for instance, to Vertical Communications, the Cambridge-based company that offers TeleVantage, and ask to be connected to extension 161. No joke, you’ll get the desk of John Manzi, a support engineer. “That’s ironic,” he notes, with a wit perhaps frayed by the ringing he endures.