The Cell Phone Time Machine

Time: 7 years Ago
Setting: Hotel Palomar. San Francisco. 9:30am

I was chatting with my old friend Arthur over a continental breakfast at the Hotel Palomar. His phone rang. He took the call. It didn’t bother me in the slightest. He had warned me ahead of time that this mission critical call might come. Arthur is an upsettingly accomplished writer and was scheduled to do a series of radio interviews while in San Francisco. He got the data he needed (where to be, when, who was driving) and snapped shut his flip phone. The minute or so he spent on his phone gave me just enough time to fire up my iPhone, check email, web stats, and incoming Tweets. It was a win win. On the surface, the moment was all too normal. A couple guys sitting across from each other at a table, both working their cell phones. But not too long ago, this scene with Arthur would have been completely unthinkable.

Time: Twelve Years Ago
Setting: Brooklyn Heights. Noon

I left a meeting downtown and raced to meet Arthur at a Brooklyn Heights cafe where he spent most afternoons huddled over a pen and a pile of dog-earred yellow pads. I was late. I wanted to call Arthur and let him know. But I couldn’t. Arthur hated being connected. When he used a laptop to type his novels, he did so only after disabling its wireless connectivity. And he hated cell phones. I saw this contempt for technology as selfish aggression.

What point was he trying to make? Forget about me. What about his wife? They had two young kids. What if there was an emergency? I got frustrated enough when my wife forgot her cell phone somewhere. But to simply refuse to own one?

Arthur took my complaints in stride. He heard them all the time. He offered an anecdote about his travels in his early twenties when he went for weeks without being anywhere near a phone. And nothing terrible happened. Sometimes he just didn’t want to be reached so he didn’t feel he needed a cell phone and he was convinced if he got one, he’d never be able to concentrate enough to write another novel. I decided I wouldn’t want to call him even if he changed his mind.

Time: Twenty Eight Years Ago
Setting: The Sizzler. 11:30am, Early Bird Special

I spent the summer working at my dad’s company. He was (and is) an amazingly successful self-made real estate developer. On a particularly slow day, everyone in the office decided to hit the Sizzler. Shortly after sitting down, we heard a too-loud voice rising above the din of the lunch crowd. We looked over and saw a guy alone at a table, holding one of those giant, newfangled portable phones to his ear.

My dad shook his head. “Don’t ever let that happen to you,” he warned. “Can you imagine having a job so terrible that you can’t even get away from your boss long enough to eat your lunch. They make him carry around that contraption.” And everyone else at the table nodded in agreement.

“David, look at that poor guy.” My dad touched my hand. “That’s why I always tell you, never work for someone else.”

Time: Today
Setting: Right behind this screen

Arthur still has his cell phone. He’ll read this blog post on his wifi-connected laptop and maybe he’ll share it on the Facebook page his publisher convinced him to set up.

So I guess I won that battle. But thinking of us sitting at the table, phones in hand, does make me wonder whether Arthur was really so wrong to want to disconnect from everyone for a few hours a day.

While he doesn’t use it much, my dad has had a cell phone for years. And it’s always in his pocket, even when we occasionally go back to that Sizzler near his office.

Couldn’t the pity my dad felt for that guy at the Sizzler be applied, on some level, to any one of us today?

Copied to Clipboard