A cell phone today is as necessary as shoes, and most of us would feel as naked leaving the house without a phone as we would going outside barefoot. But 15 years ago a cell phone—a little blue Nokia—was more of an option, a luxury item that an indulgent wife would give her husband, particularly if he sometimes nodded off and missed his train stop. As today is my birthday, I thought I'd dig into the past for a previous birthday column. The day this column ran, the city editor saw me, smiled, and shouted across the newsroom, "Throw it! Throw it!"
But very soon I began thinking, and qualms set in. As I walked home, I questioned buying the knife. "Why," I wondered, "did I buy this thing? What am I going to do with it?" I tried telling myself that it was for self-defense. That, confronted by bullies, I would pull out my switchblade and they would back off, terrified. Stupid of me.
OK, I reasoned, maybe I won't use it against bullies. I'll show it off, to impress people. It will make me seem tough. Girls will be impressed.
I was walking on a causeway, across a lake, having these thoughts when, acting impulsively, I took the switchblade out of my pocket and flung it into the water. It made a small blooping splash.
Over the years, from time to time I've regretted not having the switchblade, just as a relic. But in the main I am proud that, at 17, I realized that toting a switchblade around was a bad idea, and believe that my life has gone more smoothly without it.
The memory of the switchblade's final dive slumbered in my mind for 25 years, to be triggered afresh this morning as I crossed the Madison Street bridge over the Chicago River on my way from the train station to work. I turned 42 earlier in the week and my wife gave me a cell phone as a present. Thanks, honey. I let it sit on the coffee table for a few days, but I knew I'd have to come to terms with the thing, eventually. This morning I noticed it, sighed, and slipped the phone into my shirt pocket as I left for the train.
Hurtling downtown, I plunged into the 148-page instruction book. It began with a raft of unexpected warnings: Don't use the phone at a gas station! Don't use it near chemicals, or at a blasting site! Don't point the infrared beam (the infrared beam?) at anyone's eyes! The thing made a switchblade seem as benign as a soup spoon.
Calling people, it turns out, is the least of the phone's abilities. It is a calculator and an alarm clock. You can store phone numbers, send text messages. My phone plays games. (Such as Snake 2: "Feed the snake with as many goodies as possible and watch it grow ...")
Not that these tricks came easy. Getting the phone to work was like studying for a math test. There were mysterious glyphs to decipher, buttons to find, tasks to master. I did manage to place a call, to my wife, whom I had just spoken to 20 minutes earlier.
"Hello," I bellowed, as if shouting down a well. "I'm on the train. The TRAIN! That's right." I had to yell that phrase--it's what everyone with a cell phone seems compelled to say. If I was now a cell phone guy, I should play the part.
I suppose a cell phone does not seem the most romantic birthday gift, but we are practical people. My wife got me the phone because she knew I would never buy one myself. In fact, I had never even thought of buying one, and my face must have reflected puzzlement, opening the gift, because she felt the need to point out its utility.
"If you think you're going to fall asleep on the train, you can tell me to call you before your stop and wake you up," said my wife, cheerily.
I paused on the bridge, took out the phone, and looked at it. An amazing bit of technology. The size of a squashed Milky Way bar, a cool industrial blue, with a dozen little oval keys set in four discretely arcing rows under a screen the size of a big postage stamp.
A modern miracle, really. Half the people in the country have them, and they seem to use them all the time, yammering happily away as they march down the street. Why not me?
Because it made me uneasy. I bounced it in my palm, remembering the knife, smiling just at the thought of pitching it off the bridge. We are defined by our tools. A guy carrying a switchblade is itching to cut somebody; a guy carrying a phone must be eager to talk.
Which is not me. I'm trying to talk less, not more. I've gotten three phone calls in the past 10 minutes, while writing this, each more bothersome than the next. Frankly, rather than get a new phone, I'd be happier losing the ones I've got. Communication could use a few hurdles.
Yes, a cell phone is handy if the train is late. But the train isn't usually late, and when it's on time the phone is just another thing to carry, to keep in my drawer and load in my pockets every morning--wallet, keys, money clip, handkerchief and, now, telephone. You have to worry about losing it, worry is it on, or off, worry does it have enough juice? It's practically like carrying around a tiny electronic baby.
Yet I didn't throw the phone into the river. I put it back in my pocket and plodded on. Dramatic displays are for teenagers. And the phone was, after all, a gift from my wife. But even as I kept the phone, I felt a pang for my former, unconnected self, now gone forever. I have become hooked to the big grid, like everybody else. Well, I comforted myself, the good thing is, knowing me, it won't be long before I lose it.
— Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 14, 2002