“Even bums have cellphones,” my mother yells, frustrated that she hadn’t been able to reach me for a few hours. Living in Baltimore, her call came through on my landline in the early evening as I sat in my Brooklyn apartment reading.
“Maybe T-Moble can use that as their next ad campaign,” I reply dryly.
“Don’t be a smartass. If you had a cell phone, I wouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense.” Co-opted by the postmodern concept that instant access is the next best thing to being there, mom’s tirade against me not wanting a cellphone isn’t the first I’ve heard.
There are folks who insist that I’m selfish, silly or some kind of cave dweller who simply refuses to step into the 21st century. One of my best female friends once explained that it’s difficult to make plans with me because of the cellphone issue.
“Why’s that?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, if I’m running late I can’t contact you.”
Picturing her trying on dresses at Betsey Johnson while I stand on a cold street corner waiting, I blurted, “So be on time!”
Heck, even back in the beeper-wearing 1980s—when all the corner boys and doctors were those sporting small black gadgets on their belts—I wasn’t the one. “Do you know the importance of a skypager?” Q-Tip famously asked once. No, I didn’t.
Perhaps I am slightly selfish, but I never thought that not having a cellphone would cause so much buzz. A few people have even commented that they thought it was brave, like I was a macho Clint Eastwood character in some spaghetti western.
“I wish I had your courage,” they say. Others just glare at me like I recently escaped from the loony bin.
It’s distressing to me how much cellphone usage has changed how society functions in public spaces. From supposedly sane people walking down the block babbling loudly to the more obnoxious ones chatting in movie theaters, there often seems to be no boundaries for hardcore mobile addicts.
Indeed, they’ll talk to anyone, take pictures of everything, and then get mad if you glare at them for being rude.
Recently, a friend commented that, when we had one-on-one conversations, I actually seemed to be paying attention. “You’re the only person I know not Twittering or talking to someone else,” he said. “You’re so present.”
Without a doubt, I’ve seen more than my share of couples on dates who are more connected with their various devices than with each other. Moreover, please don’t let them forget their phones in the house by accident; even if they’re simply going to the corner store, the separation anxiety is crazy.
Meanwhile, there are other folks I could name who buy the latest phones but are usually too preoccupied playing games or downloading apps to answer a mere call.
“That’s not the point, at least I have a phone,” my homeboy Scotty screams. “Don’t be afraid of technology, man.”
While I might’ve been the last person I know to convert from typewriters to a Mac back in the 1990s, my lack of a mobile phone isn’t grounded in fear, but in overexposure to this small, dreaded mechanism that often feels like an anchor.
As a writer working from home, where I’m constantly checking messages from my landline, once I leave the house I’d like to be free. I’m not worried about catching cellphone radiation cancer; I just don’t want to be bothered.
“But what if there’s an emergency?” asks a friend, moments after using her phone’s Shazam app to identify the Flock of Seagulls song blaring from the Starbucks speakers.
This same friend mostly uses her phone to update her Facebook page, as she relates tiny details of long runs through the park or leisurely Sunday brunches. However, not having kids, a wife or a steady girlfriend, it’s difficult for me to understand what might be that important that it can’t wait until I get home.
Anyway, every time there’s been a real crisis in New York City—from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy—cellphone service has been the first thing to go out. Looking at the newspapers after the hurricane, there was something quite strange and ironic seeing people gathered around payphones, waiting to drop their change through the coin slot.
In the end, while my refusal to not be connected by cellphone could be viewed as an immature protest against society, my parents, or the world-at-large, the real truth is I really just don’t want to be bothered. While I’m researching my current work-in-progress at the library, strolling down Broadway on a spring afternoon or catching a spontaneous concert, I’d like to do it without someone chattering in my ear.
I doubt that I’ve missed much.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.
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