Hold the Phone, by Elayne Riggs
I’ve admitted it before, I have no idea how to text message. Oh, I think I understand the basic principle behind texting; it’s like IM’ing using a handheld device, right? Only, I’ve never done it. I’ve sat through television shows that use instant polling via cell phone text devices for viewers to cast pointless votes for their favorite this-and-thats, but it all seemed like so much mysterious, impenetrable jargon. "Text 12345 to 67890"? In what world is this plain English?
In the world of the "late aughts," apparently. By the way, I’ve never used a PDA either, although I’ve "hot-sync’ed" my ex-boss’ Palm Pilot with a PC. Again, I get the principle, but the idea somewhat alarms me. During my recent 6-month job search I saw so many ads for executive assistants that required knowledge of a Blackberry that I was seriously considering taking some sort of tutorial just to familiarize myself with exactly how it worked. As it is, we don’t even have a text messaging plan for our cell phones. Every time I get a text message, which 90% of the time is a spam offer from T-Mobile, we get billed 5 cents. That’s right, they get to spam me and charge me for the privilege. Shouldn’t that be illegal or something to do to customers who have opted out of texting?
I’m still getting used to the idea of the ubiquity of cell phones on the New York City streets. The last time Robin and I visited England, that’s the main thing he noticed about Londoners that hadn’t been present when he lived in the UK, all the folks who had a cell phone practically attached to their ears. I was in the East Village last week, and just from a quick glance around at pedestrian traffic I approximated one of every three people was using a cell phone as they traversed the intersections. (This is something comic book artists, particularly at Marvel as so many of that company’s titles are based in New York City, should note if they’re going to draw a lot of city scenes.)
I have a theory that there are probably fewer cigarette smokers in urban areas now than there were even a few years ago because, if you need one hand free to swing as you walk or to hold a shoulder bag or briefcase, and therefore you leave your other hand the choice between lighting up and dialing up, more people will currently choose their electronic toys to satisfy their oral fixations than the drag on the cancer stick. Plus, if you’re smoking you’re going to be too short of breath to be able to carry on a phone conversation while you walk!
By and large, people who walk and use cell phones simultaneously seem to have gotten better about multi-tasking. I’m sure those first people who tried to walk whilst chewing gum or eating bananas a century ago had their difficulties as well. I’m equally sure that the folks walking behind them and getting stuck in cast-off gum or slipping on banana peels had an even trickier traverse. During my job search, I don’t think I got jostled even once by someone so busy concentrating on a cell phone conversation that they couldn’t be bothered looking out for what was going on around them in real life, and that’s a big improvement over just a few years ago.
On the other hand, I think far too many people aren’t really using cell phones for the purpose to which I believe they were originally intended. Oh, I’m not so 20th-century as to believe they should still only be employed in dire emergencies, I’ve chatted with Robin on the hands-free GPS bluetooth enough times to be aware of how relaxing it is to just ramble on, provided you’re aware of your surroundings. But here’s the thing: a phone call is a private thing, y’know?
That’s why phone booths used to be enclosed in the days when Clark Kent could leap into one, and when that became apparently too prohibitive or whatever the public phones still had little side guards. So if you don’t want people to know your private business (and sometimes I wonder if people just don’t care after we’ve gone through 7+ years of an administration hell-bent on eliminating privacy) you have those cell phone conversations out of earshot — when you’re by yourself in a car, or in a moving crowd where nobody’s going to hear more than a few words, or in a building’s empty entrance lobby. You don’t converse at length on a public bus. At least if you don’t want to be mocked in someone’s blog post. (Fighting bad tech use with bad tech use, I love the 21st century!)
Well, fortunately for this column, Robin and I heard a doozy of a conversation last Thursday, returning from a sojourn into the city where I had participated in a "roundtable on women and comics" for Current TV with three members of the current Friends of Lulu board (there you are, your It’s All Good comics content for the week!). We’d gotten the local bus from the subway station back to its terminus a half block from our home, and a fellow boarded shortly after we did, never missing his stride as he carried on an animated and pointedly loud conversation with someone named Jose. Apparently, as all the other passengers on the bus found out in short order, this nebbishly-sounding guy would be meeting Jose on Saturday at the Summit, NJ train station at 5 PM to take him to some sort of party, which would take place nearby from the hours of 6 to 10 PM. He would be wearing some sort of yellow coat or jacket or vest, I was never clear on that, although I should have been because he repeated it enough times. He also repeated things like "Do you know what a towel is?" (I got the impression English was not Jose’s first language) and, most intriguingly, "There will be no touching or fondling."
Now, I ask you, what were we all to think? He’s picking up this guy he’s obviously never met at a train station, and he’ll be the guy with the yellow jacket carrying a towel. For Jose to wear. At this party. Where there will be no touching or fondling.
Part of me desperately wants to know what happened at that party last Saturday, while a larger part of me knows, beyond all doubt, that the proceedings should have been none of my business, and I resent the fact that they became my business through no action of my own. It’s like the drive-by text message charges T-Mobile levies at me every time they send me an unsolicited ad. Damn it, it’s not fair, I didn’t ask to be involved to this extent! I just want to use my phone to make phone calls!
Sometimes I just want to chuck the whole thing (responsibly, of course). But then how would I call Robin to have him come and walk lazy ol’ me the half-block from the bus terminus back to our home? And how would I have accomplished my job search while being out in Manhattan doing my job search? I like the ability to get in touch with whomever I please whenever I need to — the keyword there being "need." I don’t like the ability of my mobile phone company to charge me for receiving texts I don’t even want. I don’t like the assumptions of most modern people out there that I participate in texting. And I really don’t like to have thoughts of that "no touching" towel party in Summit running around my brain.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and will be very happy when she gets a new PC, even though she will not be using it to text message anyone.
Also RIP George Carlin, who, last October, observed to Keith Olbermann, "Everyone’s got a cell phone that makes pancakes so they don’t want to rock the boat."