Illustrations by Jack Graydon
I’ve been part of a few fads in my lifetime: Wearing Nikes, sleeping in a bed, reading The Hunger Games. I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook, I’ve driven a convertible Jeep in the sun and I’ve eaten kettle corn out of a microwaved bag. I’ve blogged. I’ve Tweeted. I’ve worked 50 or more hours a week for months on end. So in many ways, I’m an average 37-year-old US citizen, except for one thing.
I’ve never owned a cell phone.
I know – I’m supposed to be embarrassed. Or at least that’s what I think I’m supposed to be. People are embarrassed for me. My little sister introduced me at a party this past year by saying, “This is my brother Peter. He doesn’t own a cell phone.” Apparently this is key information during an introduction to a stranger.
And last week, a woman on the street asked to borrow my phone for a minute.
When I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t own one,” she looked horrified.
She said, “Are you OK?”
“Am I OK? Well, honestly... I’m not sure.”
Sometimes I feel like Holden Caulfield in his scene with the prostitute. I know that I’m supposed to have an orgasm when you tell me about Boeing’s security-oriented Blackphone, but so far, I’m not even turned on.
Wait, you say it has a Silent Circle–encrypted calling client, SpiderOak online storage and it only costs $629 [£380]? Why didn’t you tell me all of that in the first place?
When I watch an advertisement wherein people argue about 4G, I think to myself, Is there a 5G? Or a 6G? Is 6G what CIA or NSA spies are secretly using right now? Was there a 4F before the 4G, or a 3G before a 4G? What about 3.5F?
I don’t know how cell phone math works. And is 3D related to that whole G thing, or something else, because I’ve seen some pretty stupid ads on the topic of 3D phones and I’m guessing that those two could be related?
When I start spacing off and thinking like this, pretty soon I’m considering the use of the alphabet to sell products, and the alphabet’s limitations – only 26 letters – but how numbers are infinite, even when negative, and then I remember the fact that there are infinite numbers between three and four.
I start to think about simple infinities and how, even though the world spins and there’s day and night and seasons and shifting magnetic poles, there is no upside-down in the universe – just one big universe in every direction.
And then I have to go drink a glass of water in the kitchen, over the sink, while staring out the window for a while, because distance is relative, you know?
With cell phones, I’m confused in lots of ways. Because I’ve never texted, I’m what people call a “text-speak moron”. I don’t know what “LMFAO” stands for, or “IMO”. And the numbers thing comes in here too.
For example, I just learned that “<3” doesn’t equal “less than three.” I kept wondering why people on the internet were commenting, “I love your singing less than three," or “You look so hot in that outfit less than three.” I wondered why not “more than 100” or at least “more than nine.”
One of my friends is in a new relationship, and he’s texting all the time. I keep worrying about his neck. He hunches a lot right now, and his neck is in bad shape. He’s always looking down at that tiny screen in his hand.
Oh, I’m sorry. I meant to say that he’s always looking down at that huge, 4.7-inch AMOLED Plus display screen in his hands. I forgot how huge 4.7 inches is, that 4.7 inches is enormous. Actually, when I see an advertisement for 4.7 inches, I think about when I was in college, and that anyone who had 4.7 inches in his hands was seriously embarrassed and hoped that nobody would ever find out about his little secret.
My sister has the Apple iPhone 5S with Siri. Not only is it a touch screen, but it also has voice recognition.
She talks to her phone: “Find Red Robin.”
I look up in the sky, but she means a restaurant.
She says, “I’ve got 81 apps for free.”
“Oh,” I say, and just to annoy her – even though I know exactly what she’s bragging about – I say, “You can’t even eat 81 appetizers, can you?”
One of my friends said recently, “It’d be great to live under a rock like you,” but I know she didn’t mean it. People don’t want to be me. Living without a cell phone is dangerous. My friends and family are always saying, “But what if you’re in trouble?”
I say, “What kind of trouble?”
They say, “Like, if you’re lost in the woods, and you need help.”
“How would a cell phone help me if I were lost in the woods and needed help?”
“GPS, Pete. Phones have GPS now.”
“Oh, right,” I say. “GPS – but why would I be lost in the woods in the first place?”
Then they shake their heads. My not owning a cell phone annoys them. I obviously don’t understand what’s important in this life. I’ve had no fewer than seven people offer to put me on their plans. Like drug dealers in a John Hughes movie scene, they all say the same thing: “I can just start you for free, man. You’d be part of my family.”
So I get into character and say, “No thanks, man. I’m gonna stay straight.”
In David Sedaris's "Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa," Sedaris’s partner, Hugh, says that while he was living in Ethiopia as a kid, he saw the movie with the talking Volkswagen, and afterward he discovered a dead man hanging from a telephone pole in the theater parking lot.
When he tried to explain later how he felt about seeing the body swinging from the rope, his friend stopped him and said, “You saw a movie about the talking car?”
That’s how it is with me not owning a cell phone.
I say, “My friend crashed his bike next to me the other day, and he was bleeding everywhere, out of his nose and forehead, and I was trying to borrow a cell phone from a passerby, to call for help, because I don’t have one, and my friend was completely knocked out, and then he started convulsing on the ground and I thought he was going to die, and – ”
“Wait, wait, wait,” the listener stops me. “Hold on now. You really don’t have a cell phone? Why not?”
I talked to a person on the street yesterday who held a sign that read: "No food, no money, anything helps."
He had a huge touch-screen cell phone on his hip in a belt holder. Beyond the fashion faux pas, I wondered about him begging for food while paying a monthly cell phone bill. I wondered who told him it was necessary to own that phone. I’m all for America, land of the free and I’m no better than anyone else, but does freedom mean that everyone is required to pay a ton of money to hold a portable phone?
On the other hand, I’ve heard that some hipsters in Portland are “going back” to old-school flip phones. It’s like buying one of the Decemberists’ albums and saying that they’re still obscure, like reclaiming Green Day or Radiohead as “a couple of bands nobody’s really heard of.”
A young man named Ashleigh, who’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a scarf and a Che Guevara hat, says to me, “My phone has no internet capability, and it only cost $19.99.” He’s sort of breathless as he explains this to me.
“Wow,” I say. “That’s great.”
He holds the phone between us and closes his eyes like he might cry. “You can’t do anything on this,” he says. “Just call and text and take pictures.”
I nod and say, “Wow,” again. “That’s crazy.”
Then I wonder, What would going back to the old-school look like for me?
I have to admit, I’m not the last human being without a cell phone.
There’s probably a 97-year-old man in Carthage, South Dakota, who’s hard of hearing and didn’t understand his grandchildren when they said, “THIS IS IMPORTANT, GRANDPA. YOU NEED A CELL PHONE SO YOU CAN CALL FOR HELP WHEN YOU’RE LOST IN THE WOODS.”
My friend and I were talking about Google Glass yesterday. He’s naturally pro-Glass, and I’m naturally con-Glass.
He said, “Are you afraid that we’re flying too close to the sun, Pete?”
“No,” I said, “I’m afraid that we’re digging too close to the already-cracked sewage pipe.”
“Oh, Pete,” he said, “you just don’t under – ” But then he stops talking and puts one finger up in the air before dropping his head, the universal sign that a person has received a text message.
He gets very quiet, like he’s praying, and I get very quiet to respect his moment of religious devotion.
I’m not a believer myself, but I don’t want to interrupt him in this, his house of worship, because to interrupt him would be rude.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the author of Let Them Be Eaten By Bears: A Fearless Guide To Taking Our Kids Into the Great Outdoors (a Parenting magazine selection for Best Books of 2013), the novel Graphic the Valley (starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal) and the memoir The End of Boys, a Goodreads End-Of-Year Selection.
He just spent five weeks working on a novel in a dirt-road village of 200 people in Central America where one 12-year-old kid owned an old-school cell phone. All of the other kids in the village wanted that phone.
Follow Peter on Twitter.