100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 20: My First Cell Phone
(And one of my First Humor Columns)
By Dave Fox
Seattle — 2000
This is one of the first humor columns I ever wrote — the only one online that precedes my Nisqually Earthquake story. I remember publishing it somewhere other than my own website, but I honestly don’t remember where, so I don’t think it was a super-astronomical event. It’s fun for me to see how both technology and my writing hav changed over the years. Here is my column in its original, unedited form.
I once had a girlfriend who called me “Gadget Man” because of my obsession with frivolous devices. At various points in my life, I’ve owned a salad spinner, an electric sandwich toaster, a heated back massager, and a deluxe model Clapper. I have four remote controls – one for my VCR, one for my digital cable box, and two for my stereo, which includes a 200-disc CD changer. But until recently, I’ve escaped the lure of a cell phone.
I hate those chirpy little ringers that bleep during suspenseful moments in crowded movie theaters. I hate yuppies in restaurants who loudly share business deals with everyone else in the room. I especially despise the growing frequency at which I must slam on my brakes to avoid some freak trying change lanes, shift gears, sip his latte, and key in his voice mail PIN code, all at 72 miles an hour.
But recently, my gadget addiction overruled my hatred for these obnoxious devices. In a moment of weakness, I snapped and bought one. I needed a new toy.
My secret desire to own a mobile phone evolved over the course of several trips to Europe. In Scandinavia, where I work each summer, roughly 60 percent of the entire population – men, women, children, dogs and cats – all owns cell phones. In Norway, some elementary schools have banned them. They were disrupting classes.
The Italians are worse. They love their phones like they love their mammas. On a crowded train from Venice to Florence a couple of summers ago, I felt eerily alone as the only person in my compartment with no one to talk to. Everyone else was on the phone.
Back home in Seattle, I spotted a display in an electronics store window. I decided I needed to “just go have a look.” My plan was to have a fast-talking salesman baffle me with complex, misleading calling plans like they do in the radio ads. I’d get flustered and leave, smug in my belief that cell phones are evil. But the salesman had the audacity to offer something simple: 500 minutes a month, 50 bucks, free long distance, no roaming fees, cancel anytime.
My brain flipped into rationalization mode. If I used the bulk of my minutes for long distance calls I’d make anyway, it seemed affordable. Two minute pay phone calls for 35 cents would cost 20 cents on a mobile phone. Best of all, if I passed cute women on the highway with their own cell phones, I could flash my number at them and we could fall in love and get married or something.
I walked out of the store shamefully cradling my new toy, feeling the same way I felt the first time I bought condoms and the clerk gave them to me in a see-through bag. There are two kinds of people in the world: People who own cell phones, and people who hate people who own cell phones. I was changing teams. I was a traitor.
Coming out about my purchase was awkward. Some of my friends accepted my new lifestyle. Others shunned me.
My friend Althea thought it was frivolous, but she respected my phone at first. I called from my car the first evening I had the phone, eager to test my coordination. I quickly discovered dialing and driving is dangerous and should be a capital offense. Nevertheless, we have not yet passed that law. My first call from the road was an important rite of passage. Althea listened patiently as I reported block-by-block on my location.
A few days later when I called from a parking garage, she was less supportive. “Are you on your cell phone?” she asked, hearing the background noise.
“Do you live on that thing now?!”
I felt scorned. “I was just wondering if you wanted to have dinner.”
She had already eaten, but felt like chatting. I grew impatient as she drew me into a lengthy conversation. My cheaper-than-a-pay-phone plan wasn’t working. “Can I call you when I get home?” I asked. “I don’t want to use up my minutes.”
“Fine.” She sounded irritated. “Where are you now?”
“In the parking ramp.”
“You were there 10 minutes ago.”
“I can’t talk and drive. It’s not safe.”
Hypothermia was setting in by the time I started my engine.
The next weekend, I revealed my secret to another friend on Queen Anne Hill. She lives on a street with 732 car owners and five parking spaces. “I’ll call you when I’m outside your building and you can just come down,” I suggested, feeling clever.
“You’re not even going to ring the doorbell?” She sounded horrified by my techno-yuppie plan.
“Umm, just kidding,” I said. I left my phone at home and parked illegally in a bus stop while I rang the doorbell.
But my biggest humiliation happened one evening at my neighborhood pub. Despite my new appreciation for the mobile phone lifestyle, I still believe people who gab on phones in restaurants should be tarred and feathered. But on this particular night, I had left my number on the voice mail of a man I was trying to scalp concert tickets from.
In the middle of dinner, my jacket pocket begin bleeping. Mortified, I fumbled for my phone, apologizing to my companion for the intrusion.
“This is Don,” the stranger on the phone said. “You called about the Counting Crows tickets.”
I was annoyed at the guy for calling me at a restaurant. Then I realized I had given him my number. He didn’t know it was a cell phone.
“Can I call you tomorrow?” I whispered, trying to hide under the table as I scribbled his number on my napkin. “I’m at a restaurant and… well, I just can’t talk now.”
Slowly, people who know me are getting used to my phone. In fact, I’ve almost convinced a few friends to get their own. Meanwhile, the cell phone owners I used to despise have welcomed me into their club despite my past prejudices. My cell-phone-owning buddies and I brag about whose is smallest. We compare calling plans.
I see a new age of tolerance on the horizon, a world in which the have-nots will join the haves, and we will all bask in the glory of hands-free car microphones and mini Internet browsers. In the meantime, I have learned to tread quietly. I turn my phone off in restaurants and pull over before dialing.
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