The Decade in Cell Phones: A Memoir

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The Decade in Cell Phones: A Memoir

As a junior in high school I convinced my parents that I for some reason needed a pager. It’s an embarrassing chapter to look back on. What possible reason could I have given for needing the medium of Doctors and drug dealers?  At the time it revolutionized my social interactions. Suddenly I was contactable. Using the payphone in the high school entry way I could return the several pages I would receive in a given week. Such a strange system; people I would be seeing in the halls or in class shortly, bothering to find a phone and send a page. What a laborious task.

Judging by the code affixed after the callback number I could gauge the importance and relevance of the call. 420 for pot, 911 for emergency, and the oft spoken of, never received 69 for high school loving.  Predominately the pages ended with 420, the few 911s often pertaining to 420. In truth, no descriptor needed affixing to these missives. I was happy to receive them and hardly dallied in replying.

This was 1999. In 2001 I graduated, leaving the pager behind and moved on to college. As a freshman my roommate and I had a landline assigned to us and a phone with a long coiled cord allowing us to walk out into the hall where we seemed to do most of our parental calls if someone was in the room.  I remember a real sense of independence upon receiving that number.

As a sophomore that same roommate and I moved into a two bedroom with a third friend. In that apartment we received yet another number from ‘the phone company’ and a bill which I’m sure cost no more than $10 a month. This number marked an occasion: for the first time we were listed in the phonebook, and we had an answering machine. I remember elaborate plans for our message. The closing lines of The Breakfast Club, somehow tailored to our threesome. I’m fairly certain we never carried through with it. At least I hope we didn’t. I remember our more creative friends, all of whom lived in similar arrangements carrying out the same plans. You would call and more often than not be greeted by a three or four part harmony announcing who lived there, possibly just screaming in the deep, deep background. If you got through to someone there was a distinct pleasure in not immediately knowing who had answered. It seemed communal; you could imagine a group of your friends gathered together, the closest one grabbing the phone off the wall as it rang.

As a junior I moved in with two other friends. The college upheaval had struck, their third roommate dropped out, my two roommates had started dating. Around this time I’d begun to see cell phones more and more. Often I would see them when visiting friends at more prestigious schools. They also began emerging at my large state university, often in the hands of the few out-of-staters. It was then that I felt the first pang of jealousy. My parents had purchased a cell phone several years before, but it was a clunky blue Nokia used almost entirely for out of town trips. The antiquated term ‘for emergencies only’ made its way into my lexicon.

When my two roommates and I returned from winter break that year we came back to a bill from the phone company for $180 dollars. A friend had stayed at our place and, desperately missing his girlfriend who’d decamped for a semester in Paris, racked up an astronomical bill in long distance charges.

At the same time one of the roommates, from Connecticut of course, returned with a cell phone. It was the first one I remember anyone in our group having. I’m sure we poked fun at him. Who was he calling; none of us had a phone to call, outside the apartment? It was small, silver and flipped open and closed. I believe he managed to keep that phone for several years. I’m sure we joked about it, but steadily we all got them. I convinced my parents I needed a cell phone. My father and I drove to the local U.S. Cellular store in a strip-mall and I anxiously waited through the salespersons explanation of what was what on this thick black chunk of phone. We set up my first voicemail message. Listening to it later on I could hear the strain in my voice as my father and the salesperson watched me. I changed it as soon as I was alone again.

Within a month or two we canceled our land line.

I have no idea how many minutes I had on that first plan. I’m positive there were no texting capabilities. This was the heady days of 'roaming charges', driving mere miles from my college and suddenly finding my phone on a server entitled T-39.

Just like that I entered into the same world as my roommate. Friends heaved pointed barbs about this new device I seemed incapable of keeping in my pocket. But in those jokes and insults I could hear the jealousy. I began receiving call upon call from dorms and friend's apartments wanting to know what the plans were for the night. A friend jokingly nicknamed me ‘The Hub.’

Sometime during that year we hit a tipping point; it became assimilate or die. Even the staunchest objectors were caving. When we returned for our senior year it seemed everyone finally had a phone. Not only that but they were advancing from the Nokias that my parents and I still carried. Things were accelerating. They flipped open, took pictures, came in sleeker colors and designs and were capable of texting. The term T9 entered into my world. For the first year or so after that I still typed each word, quickly jabbing the button the requisite number of times to get to the desired letter.

As cell phones became more and more a part of our lives a dichotomy was developing. As a senior those friends without cell phones were now the anomaly. Gone were the carefully planned nights and weekends. No longer was it of the utmost importance that we know exactly what/when/where before leaving our apartments and dorms. The time someone was picked up - especially in those arctic winters when running up to an intercom was unbearable - no longer needed exact specifications. If a friend kept you waiting you called from the comfort of the car, exasperated at the delay.

Just as the restrictions on timing eased, suddenly gone was the unexpected drop-in, replaced by a call saying a person was 'pulling into the driveway, was that cool?' We seemed suddenly unsure of the boundaries that our connectivity had redefined. Freed with one hand, we were tethered with the other.

So too grew the exponential occurance of the pointless phone call. Here were these things, in our pockets, intended to connect us and they could be a powerful draw. Friends would be in between classes, eating lunch, unable to focus in the library and just call. For nothing. Just call to see what was going on. We were babes, lost in the woods of a new technological landscape, and we didn't know how to comport ourselves.

Sometime around Christmas of my first year post-college my parents joined T-Mobile. It makes me cringe at the joy I took in my family joining our first national cell plan. My parents were no longer on some Podunk cell provider. We were with T-MOBILE. That’s a national company with commercials. We all received new phones, and in retrospect I see that, as in so many situations, my parents had deferred the nicer of the phones to me. It was a blue, hard rubber flip phone that I may have even bragged about.  It fit my face so well. I quickly adopted a one finger hold that pressed it perfectly against my ear. It had games in color. In that winter, after having spent a long summer and fall living back in the attic of my parents house I was finally in Boston, with no plan to speak of and no idea where I was headed. I remember that winter vividly, and that phone is as much a part as the cold, the confusion and the temp work.

Separated from friends now spread across the country, in a time when we should have been even more connected, I felt increasingly isolated. Invariably we would call each other when out drinking. The West Coast kids getting drunken calls at 4 PM, the East Coasters getting them at 4 in the morning. And the Mountain Region? They seemed to send and receive at any given hour. But if it was daylight you could be assured of reaching voicemail. Calls had become a burden. A glance at the caller ID, a groan at the prospect of a twenty minute call that had to be deep and all-encompassing, and you would promise yourself you'd call the person back in a few minutes.

Texting, more than anything else seemed to contribute to this loathing of actual phone conversation. The allure of simply shooting off a few missives was so much more enticing than actually engaging with a person. Tell me where to meet, and I'll text the okay. Text me that favorite drunken Kerouac line, out there in Denver, and I'll respond with an equally emboldened line relating to our shared perception of past glories. Texting allowed us to interact, but disengage whenever we felt like it. Vagaries slipped in and too much time would be spent analyzing a curt response, or agonizing over a screed extending across three texts.

As we became more and more reticent about the ties to our phones there was also the ever present envy of those with increasingly powerful phones, capable of varied tasks. I remember the first Blackberry I saw and the confusion it instilled in me. It looked like a portable blackjack player and seemed immense, the green screen always scuffed and dim. It would be explained, 'well, I can check my email on it...', but what wasn't ever made clear to me was why someone would want to check their email from their phone.

About this time I entered into an, admittedly one-sided, arms race with my roommate for dominance in the cell phone arena. I'd given up flip phones and gone to a slim bar phone, which while not imbued with any special features would without fail garner attention and praise as I brandished it around town. He moved through a series of ever smaller blackberries, on which I would occasionally try to rollerball my way to the alleged internet function before giving up in frustration and walking to a laptop.

That all ended with the advent of the iphone.

While the appeal of the Blackberry seemed relatively limited - the internet function was bare-boned and that aside it did little to advance the form and function of the phone - it heralded a new age in cell phones, which I'm sure was a long time in the offing, the all-encompassing computer as phone.
With the arrival of the iphone, and probably just as importantly the touch screen, we were suddenly gliding our way to actual web content, rather than approximations. Music, internet, email were all bundled together. Where before I'd managed to keep my phone lust/guilt under control, I knew from the moment I saw it, the iphone would ruin me.

The iphone encapsulated how far phones had taken us, and how quickly. We moved from simple up-down-left-right games to ifart apps and console worthy racing games. We progressed from making plans on the run in a constant game of phone tag to Yelping the best coffee/restaurant/bar in a given area.
Whereas before a phone was constantly at hand, now they are constantly in hand; during meetings it's impossible to tell if a phone is in use as note taking, emailing, portable computer or for paper toss. With the amalgamation of media, games, music and untold numbers of apps designed to alter and ease our lives phones allow us unprecedented reign, while anchoring us even further.

I loathe my phone and at the same time am entirely beholden to it. I rage at dropped calls and their frequency. I always look at the caller ID and contemplate not answering. I hate the propensity for vagueness and indecision that they've wrought over all of us. I can literally leave my apartment with no idea where I'm going or what my plan is, and my phone can take care of all that for me. Tell me what bar to go to and I'll find its location on a map, whether it has favorable reviews, what the other options in the area are. When I'm done, my phone will tell me what trains to take home. And when my phone sits silent I impulsively grab it, checking for missed calls or texts, looking for the little red exclamation point to tell me my last text hasn't gone out and I should instantly resend it. That is if I hope to get one back.


  • 1

    I always look at the caller ID and contemplate not answering.

    Just don't answer, man. I regularly don't pick up phone calls if I don't feel like it. Why should I be available all the time?

    I hate the propensity for vagueness and indecision that they've wrought over all of us.

    I agree with this completely. What happened to our ability to make plans?

  • 2

    I remember how cool I felt in high school, when i'd be with my friends at a movie, feel the beeper buzz, look down surreptitiously, look at my buddies and invariably have the following exchange:

    Mike: "Whoozat?"

    Me: "My mom. No big deal. I'll call 'em later."

    Rebel youth.

  • 3

    I remember how cool I felt in high school, when i'd be with my friends at a movie, feel the beeper buzz, look down surreptitiously, look at my buddies and invariably have the following exchange:

    Mike: "Whoozat?"

    Me: "My mom. No big deal. I'll call 'em later."

    Rebel youth.

    online tv

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