I’ve been dropping my phone lately. This habit was preceded by the thought that maybe I didn’t need a cell phone. Rob countered that just having a long commute requires one. I argued that I commuted for years without one and it worked out okay. Then I dropped my iPhone in a parking lot and the glass shattered. It still worked and I pressed on with the idea that I’d trade it in soon enough. About a month later it fell into the toilet. I learned no amount of time in rice would save a wet iPhone with a cracked screen. I was due for an upgrade and went for the cheapest solution. Ninety-nine cents for a 5S. I ordered the phone online and paid in advance. When I arrived at Verizon they had other ideas.
“You want a 5S?” he asked incredulously.
“Weeell,” I demurred. “I had a 5 and now I want a 5S, so it’s an upgrade.”
“The phone is already four years old.”
“Three and a half actually.”
“By the time you get a new one it will be six years old!” Saliva was gathering at the corners of his mouth.
I held my ground. “I like that phone. It fits my wallet, my pocket and I like the cover.”
“We have a lot of covers for the 6.”
I dug in. “It’s already paid for and that’s what I want.”
He shook his head and went to retrieve one from the back. After a bit of back and forth on the service and connections he asked if I wanted to buy insurance for eleven dollars a month.
I didn’t flinch. “No.”
“Well you broke the last one.”
“It took me three and a half years—I’ll risk it.”
“Look,” he sighed. “This phone would cost you over five hundred dollars if you had to replace it.”
“I thought you just said it was old and not worth much.”
“I never said that.”
“You implied it.”
He was finished. He couldn’t get me out of the store fast enough.
I drove home with my new–old phone wondering why a store would offer a product they didn’t actually want you to buy. It made me think about phones in general and how they’ve become far too complicated. What I didn’t tell the hip, young sales associate was that I spend most of my time on a land line. But some things are better left unsaid.
My lake community is an old, sleepy town transitioning from retirees to young couples trying to find buyer’s relief from the New York City housing market. Maybe the new young buyers aren’t installing land lines but the rest of us have them. To begin with we lose power on a regular basis. Once you go without power for more than two days, charging your phone in the car gets old fast. Your cordless land line goes dead too so you have to keep an older land line that’s connected to the wall so you can call the electric company for an update.
I have a friend at the lake who doesn’t answer her phone. She has a landline and a cell but can never find the cell. When the land line rings she’s usually working one flight down in her studio and doesn’t bother to climb the steps and see who is calling. She does 98 percent of her communication on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account so we rarely communicate unless we meet face to face. It was simpler when everyone had and used the same means of communication.
My son owns a hundred year old row house in Baltimore. The entry way has a beautiful hallway leading into the kitchen. There’s a space hosting a small table and chair. He has an old black dial phone resting on the table, but it’s only a prop.
“You should get that hooked up,” I say.
“Why? I don’t need it. I have a cell.”
“Land lines are nice,” I explain and then I tell him all the attributes I can list. “Homey, historical, secure, no battery worries—”
“Unnecessary expense,” he interrupts and walks away.
It’s easy for him to think any phone expense is unnecessary when he and his sister are still tied to our wireless service and they get their cell phone service for a mere 10 dollars a month. Maybe I have a few unnecessary phone expenses too.
In his entry way, I stand and stare at the perfect little sitting area under the stairs—centrally located for the only house phone. It’s charming and inviting and I can imagine the pace of life in this house and on this street when the first line was installed. I picture family members racing to answer before anyone else could.
This reminds me of my own childhood, when we fought our way to the telephone to be the first to pick up the receiver.
“Make it snappy,” someone would inevitably order when I received a call. “I’m expecting an important call.” All of my mother’s calls were deemed important but none of mine were. Eventually my parents added a second children’s line so one line could always be free. It wasn’t. I often kept a friend on each line while I skipped between them making plans. In the early 1970’s I could have been a major deal maker except my best friend Mary trumped me because her father was a big shot at Ma Bell and she could organize three party calls.
Then there’s the whole idea of privacy.
“Excuse me,” I would say, cupping the voice end of the receiver. “Can I have a little privacy?”
“Nobody cares about your dumb call,” one of my siblings might say in response, refusing to leave the room. The only true recourse was to turn your back towards the interloper. It wasn’t a very effective strategy and it often erupted into a fight.
When my mother wanted privacy on the yellow kitchen wall phone she would say, “Go play outside.” And that would be the end of it.
“Take an umbrella.”
In public, people used phone booths. Early phone booths had little wooden seats and counters to lay out your change and louvered doors that allowed for privacy when you were away from home. Today everybody’s one sided cell phone conversation is public knowledge for anyone within ear shot. “Why does that man think we need to know about his divorce?” I might grumble to Rob over a hot drink at the coffee house. Rob shrugs. He agrees but tries to block it out.
When my children were growing up they shunned the phone. The unknown voice on the other end was better left unknown.
“Pick up the phone!” I would scream from behind a locked bathroom door. They rarely did. Even when Jackson received his first cell phone after his 8th grade graduation—long after his friends had—he never made any calls.
Texts would travel back and forth between our children and their friends about upcoming plans and somewhere along the way it might become muddled.
“Call them up,” Rob or I would say to them.
“No!” they would cry. “Nobody does that.”
“Well it might make things a bit clearer!” one of us would shout back. Occasionally in an act of utter desperation and at our insistence, Quinn might chance a call and firm up an arrangement to meet someone. It usually worked out well but she never converted.
Once Facebook arrived on the scene all bets were off and messaging and texts were the only known means of communication. Even emails were oddities they received from their parents or professors once they went away to college, but never a friend.
Phones today are complicated and instead of offering labor saving means of communication they come with a bundle of problems especially when you buy a new one. You’re told that the process is supposed to be seamless unless of course you drop your cracked phone in the toilet…then you can’t recover anything that wasn’t backed up on the Cloud which, being old school, I didn’t do.
I spent every evening for a week trying to sync my new phone with my iTunes. I became good friends with the people at Apple support who assigned me a case number and pretended to have great affection for the faux-luddite on the other end of their line. However, each solution ended with a new problem. It turned out that even a teeny little upgrade from a 5 to a 5S meant my laptop no longer supported the phone—too old. I have now learned to back up, migrate and restore but it took six support sessions and a trip to the Genius Bar to get me back on track and I still have issues.
I understand things change and when I complain about this stuff I usually get the time honored argument that the eraser was going to send civilization straight to hell when they added it to the end of a pencil. Between my iphone and my laptop and my PC at work I’m inundated with emails and have a whole host of people demanding things in a very short period of time. We’re expected to work away from the job because they can contact us instantly. Parents of my students tread where parents never used to tread. I think because they don’t have to work very hard before they click send—there’s no cooling off period anymore.
“Now that I think about it, maybe you deserved that B- in Art, Johnny. I don’t think I’ll call the school and contact the teacher about it after all.”
Tasks that used to be allowed a week or two to complete are now anticipated in 24 hours. As a society we spend far more time managing all this stuff than we used to, so I don’t think we’re saving much labor except our now defunct perusal of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to love looking through those books.
Students in my school aren’t allowed to have their phones out or on. It’s sort of like holding a tsunami at bay with a child’s plastic bucket. About half of the school population still complies. A boy in my class recently asked me for the time and I looked at my wrist watch. He marveled at the pie time dial.
“You can read that?”
“Of course. You can’t?”
He shrugs. “I just check my phone.”
It seems pointless to have a discussion about why he might want to learn how to read an analog clock.
“Well a watch might come in handy when you can’t use your phone. Especially in this school where the clocks are all broken.”
“I guess,” he answers, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “An iWatch might be cool.”
“But you can’t call anyone from an iWatch.”
“I never call anyone,” he said.
“Then why do you need a cell phone?”
“To play games.”
We’d better get a bigger bucket.
As for me I’m shopping online for a working rotary phone. It will never shatter and it couldn’t possibly fall in the toilet.