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Urban Diary

Our cellphones, our selves

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2008

In Porter Square Books, a woman has installed herself at a back table near the "Reference" section. Files and papers spread around her, she uses the bookstore as her personal office. Worse, she's jabbering on her cellphone. Loudly.

I try to block out her 10-minute soliloquy that can be heard as far as "Travel" - no, "Mind, Body, Spirit." No dice. To calm my nerves, I flee to the other side of the store.

Later, in line for the cashier, I hear the unmistakable, silence-shattering ring of another phone.

"Grrr," I grumble in my mind. "Why can't people turn off their flipping . . ."

Then, the horror. The ring sounds familiar. Close.

The cellphone is mine.

In my panic, I fumble with the phone, flushing red. Madly, I push buttons, trying to shut it up. Accidentally hanging up on my friend, I rush from the store, mortified.

In the words of Walt Kelly's comic strip character Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Or in this case, me.

Believe it or not, I'm new to this whole cellular phone thing. Until eight weeks ago, I have survived the 21st century sans cellphone. Rather, I've consciously resisted. I never wanted one. I knew having one would subjugate my sense of independence. Prey on my weaker, attention-seeking impulses. Turn me into a member of that plugged-in tribe of the rude, the clueless, the cellphone user.

Worst of all, I feared becoming someone whose plan changes every 15 minutes: "Call me when you get there and I'll tell you where I am and . . ."

All these years, as each friend and family member has fallen, I've fared fine without a cellphone. Away from home, if I needed to check my land line's voice mail, or connect with the 99.8 percent of the planet that has the gadget, no problem. I'm an expert at finding pay phones. Or I just mooch off my cellphone-owning friends.

I like being unreachable. I want my walks to Davis Square or across Boston Common to be my own. I need to experience the "here-ness" of my surroundings - the greenery along the bike path, the snippets of overheard conversation, the discarded lottery tickets outside the convenience store. Talking on a cellphone erases all that unstructured time and space.

Besides, look at how we tune one another out. Who can say "Good day," be a Boy Scout and help an old lady across the street - in short, be a civilized citizen - when we're plugged into iPods and Jabra EarWave headsets like extras on a "Star Trek" set? First, we're talking about mundane topics at unseemly volumes. Soon, we don't even care, blathering about a breakup or abortion on the T. Not to mention inane conversations like, "Where are you? What? What? Can you hear me?"

My friends heard my argument. Still, they grew frustrated by not being able to make last-minute plans to see a movie or a band. Besides, I was a hypocrite, bumming their phones. Eventually, my sister dragged me kicking and screaming into the cellular age. She bought me a Motorola C168i for Christmas. I had to cave.

Now, two months later, "like" is still not quite the adjective I would use to describe my feelings toward the device. I don't have my cell on me half the time, but already I can feel its insidious effects. As with e-mail, I've adopted an itchy trigger finger to check messages. If I'm expecting a call, I'll anticipate that vibration in my pocket - even when I've forgotten my phone.

Meanwhile, I ease myself into this brave new world. I still have a land line. I try to guard my privacy; I've given out my number only to a select few. I barely know how to store phone numbers, so I still carry my ratty address book. I resist the notion that I've capitulated to the status quo, or that I've been defeated by technology. Just please don't show me how to text.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

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