I called a friend yesterday to ask a question, and when he picked up the first thing he said was, “Let me call you right back. I’m on the other line, and it’s long distance.”

After we hung up, I laughed at the old-fashioned way he’d put that.

A long-distance call used to be a lot more important, because it was a lot more expensive. Now, most home and cell phone plans are all-inclusive — you can call pretty much anywhere in the US for a flat monthly fee, limited only by the number of minutes you use. It doesn’t matter where either party is, nor how many miles are between them. That has helped shrink the country, by taking away the faux aura of importance that something far away implied.

Distance doesn’t matter on your phone bill, nor does the time of day. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d wait until after 7pm to call someone because it was less expensive. And it was cheaper still after 11pm. Start that phone call even a minute early and you’d fume when your bill came and they charged you the higher rate. I once had a roommate whose girlfriend traveled a lot, and she couldn’t understand why the phone company kept charging her “evening” rates when she was clearly calling him late enough to qualify for “night” rates. Let’s just say she was never very good on the concept of time zones.

Now, it would be a moot point — pay your flat fee, call whenever, wherever. On the other hand, it takes away a good excuse: “Don’t bother Daddy right now, he’s on a long distance call.” Because if it was just down the street, it couldn’t possibly be important.

In my lifetime, I’ve had more than a dozen phone numbers as I moved from state to state. It’s now possible to get a phone number that’s local to anywhere in the country, so that you can grow up in St. Louis, go to college in Boston, get a job in Los Angeles, and still have a 314 area code on your phone. It’s likely that my daughter will have one phone number — her current cell number — for the rest of her life.

It amuses me to see people put the area code in parentheses on business cards or in e-mails. We’re already at the point where you should include all ten digits as your full phone number, especially in areas where two area codes overlap because of the increased number of phones in a market. And when did this trend start of breaking up your phone number with a dot instead of a dash? It looks like an IP address, not a phone number (e.g 202.456.1414 instead of 202-456-1414 — which, by the way, is the switchboard at the White House). Europeans may do it that way, as they do with the time, but if we’re going to start adopting their standards, you’ll have to flip the month and day when putting the date on your checks.

There was a time when I could tell where you were just by the area code. Every area code had either a zero or a one as its middle digit, and the other digits were between 2 and 9. Atlanta was 404, Denver was 303, Hartford was 203, New York was 212. For a long time, New Jersey had only two prefixes: 201 for the northern part of the state, 609 for the southern. Those geographic distinctions are gone — my brother’s cell number starts with 201, but his home number starts with 973.

Also gone are the days when your phone number included letters. When we were kids, my phone number started with HT4, and my friend Bill’s number started with MA1. As a matter of fact, Bill’s parents gave their prefix as “Mayfair-1.” If my daughter is using her phone keypad to punch in letters, it’s because she’s sending someone a text message, not calling them.

Frankly, I don’t even know the phone numbers of most of the people I call. I don’t have to remember them because my phone does. It’s only when someone asks, “Do you have Josh’s number?” that I dig out the actual digits — and then provide all ten of them.