Saturday, June 10, 2017

Newfangled device

     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!"  

     When I was 17, I bought a switchblade. I was spending the summer in Switzerland, where such knives were legal. Passing the window of a cutlery shop in Zurich, I noticed an impressive array of switchblades. Entranced, I went in and bought one. The first few minutes were pure thrill--to press the round button and have the knife snap open with a hard metallic click. To fold the long pointed blade back inside the black handle again with a smooth motion. I felt cool, dangerous.
     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.
     Double stupid.
     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


  1. I still have a dumb phone and leave it at home whenever possible. Don't like having this thing on me which could go off at any moment, interrupting my reveries. Or people expecting to be able to reach me anytime, at their convenience. Fortunately, and perhaps not coincidentally, there aren't many trying to. I have finally decided to get a smart phone. Still a bit resistant, but there have been too many times when it really would have been useful. So I'm giving in. Sigh.

  2. Happy birthday, Neil! I probably use my phone for calls less frequently than any of its other uses for me. Do you still even still have a landline?

  3. Great column, Neil! I turn 42 tomorrow and this one hit home. Maybe I'll chuck my iPhone into the river today on the way to LitFest and get lost in a book.

    Happy Birthday!

  4. Best wishes-we've come a long way with our thoughts about cellphones.

  5. But . . . did you manage to lose it?

  6. Happy Birthday Neil and many more. I'm sending this on my iPhone. Can't imagine throwing it in the river.

  7. The photo appears to show the same "frames" I worked on some 50 years ago during my short stint with AT& T, checking connections and occasionally interrupting phone calls.


  8. At age 52, I've finally acquired a switchblade. I've wanted one since I was a kid and read The Outsiders and saw West Side Story. Finally one came to me. As a defensive weapon it is almost useless. I would rather have a butter knife to defend myself. But that snap and click is exactly as you describe it. There is something magical in it. I have it an out of the way place in my house, but when I come across it occasionally, it always gets opened a few times.

  9. Happy Birthday Mr. Steinberg, my favorite columnist this side of the pond. Hopefully, your wife got you a Samsung 8 so you can be an Uber communicator ... don't wanna miss the latest tweet from Trump, now do we? 🤣

  10. I remember the first time I saw a store that sold cell phones. I remember thinking that a cell phone was a niche product that only a few people like traveling salesmen might need. It as silly to think that more that a handful of people would ever buy a cell phone. I recall feeling a pang of pity for the poor sap that started the store. Surely he would lose his life savings on this doomed product. It was just common sense that the business would fail miserably.

    Because of the iPhone, Apple is now the most valuable company in world history. You would do well to inquire as to my opinion on any topic and bet your life savings that the opposite is true. I may try it myself.


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