My Life Without A Cell Phone: An Amazing Tale Of Survival

by Dana Albarella James

I don’t own a cell phone. I never have. When people learn this fact they usually react with an exclamation of shocked disbelief, as if I lead some sort of unfathomable existence of unmitigated depravation. As if the human race didn’t manage to somehow get along just fine until about 1995, when suddenly everyone — not just the doctors and drug dealers — seemed to get a cellular. But those of us old enough to remember the Time Before Cell Phones can attest to the fact that the early adopters of this technology were mostly assholes. As a single girl in New York throughout the 1990s I can tell you that, back then, the guy in the bar with the celly was the biggest douche in the room, and he was definitely overcompensating for something. A potential hook-up who flashed a cell phone? Total dealbreaker, a complete non-negotiable. My girlfriends and I laughed at those self-important clowns.

But oh, how times have changed! I’m now a walking anachronism, a throwaway throwback, the keeper of a flame that at first burned with benign eccentricity, but soon gave way, in this new century, to a conflagration that branded me as a technological cuckoo clock, a total crazypants. And to that I say: Hardly.

The truth is, not having a cell phone all these years has afforded me and my close associates many pleasures and benefits denied to the rest of you decibel-challenged screamies. Let’s count the ways, shall we?

Convenience: So, you can call anyone you know at any time, and that’s so convenient for you, right? Well, it isn’t. Do the math. How many numbers do you have stored in your phone? Fifty, a hundred, more? Well, they’re the people for whom your phone is a great convenience — they know that they can call you and wherever you are, even if you don’t pick up, they have asserted their presence as a part of your day. You are one person with one person’s communication needs; they are legion, and they want and expect answers now. Want to know real convenience? Leave a message on my machine, or email me, and I’ll get back to you when I damn well feel like it. And if I desperately need to speak to someone when I’m away from home or office, I’ll either use a payphone (they do still exist, and I can tell you where every one south of 23rd Street is) or borrow someone else’s cell to make the call. Now that’s convenience.

Self-reliance: Did you lose your shiny little metal friend after another drunken tramp through the LES, and now you’re alone and terrified in a wilderness of solitude because you cannot get in touch with anyone you know? And now you need to send out the “I’m a careless sot” email to your entire address book begging for new contact info? I never have to worry about that particular scenario: I store my important phone numbers in an old-fashioned machine I call my brain, and as back-up I keep a rolodex at my office and an address book at my home. Have fun frantically trying to re-create your digital community — which, by the way, will never again include that model from The Box whose number you scored last year who you never called but were totally going to someday.

Punctuality/Attention Span: These two are boons for my friends and loved ones: If we have a date, I’ll almost always be on time, because I can’t call you at the restaurant, after lingering needlessly somewhere, to tell you I’m running late. Also, when we are together, you will have my undivided attention. Really. I will never glance surreptitiously down at the corner of the table to see who is calling/emailing/texting while we’re in the middle of a conversation. Which, by the way, is gross, and if you’re one of the people who does this you don’t deserve the company of other humans.

Reliable Reception: My land lines never cut out, never drop calls, and allow the person on the other end to hear me without requiring me to shriek like some menopausal housewife. Added bonus: During NYC’s occasional blackouts, the old rotary phone I keep around provides me with a link to civilization and emergency services denied to the electrically addicted masses.

Cancer-Free Skull: Don’t kid yourself. Go Google “cell phones” and “brain tumors” and proceed to piss your pants.

Freedom: Last but certainly not least, I am a free being, kids. Seriously. Unbridled and happily disconnected in a way that most cell owners simply can’t imagine. Glorious solitary cab rides, oblivious rambles though Chinatown, lazy summer afternoons at the Carmine Street pool: No device can interrupt my life. Recently, I had to admit to another parent at my daughter’s pre-school that I don’t own a cell. She looked at me as if I was a criminal, and in a way, I guess I am. I’m an irresponsible fugitive from the chains of communication that bind everyone else.

And yet I continue on, cell-less, while my friends and family wonder: When will she break down and just get a mobile already? I don’t know the answer to that question. I realize there are genuine emergency situations in which a cell phone can literally be a lifesaver. And as a parent of two my life is not the only one for which I am responsible. My resolve will crumble at some point, I guess. But it will be a sad, sad day for me, and for luddites everywhere, when I finally succumb.

Dana Albarella James is an editor and publisher. Don’t get her started on emoticons.

Photo by Ed Yourdon, via Flickr.