Cell-phone challenged or cell-phone free?

December 04, 1997|By KEVIN COWHERD

BEING THE last person in America without a cell phone has not been easy, let me tell you.

I keep thinking that some day soon you'll see me on "Maury Povich" or "Sally Jessy Raphael" with all the other freaks and fetishists and societal misfits.

As I tell my pathetic story, "Doesn't own a cell phone" will flash at the bottom of the screen, instead of "Is dating his mom" or "Hasn't seen adopted son in 40 years."

Maury or Sally Jessy will look bemused as they interview me; the studio audience will stare in rapt fascination at another loser in the daily parade of the dysfunctional.

That's the thing about cell phones: They're so ubiquitous that without one, you feel like a social outcast.

True story: The other day, I watched a man at Safeway stop his cart in the middle of the frozen food aisle and whip out his cell phone.

"The peas," he said into the mouthpiece. "Jolly Green Giant or Bird's Eye?"

He listened for a moment, nodded, then put the phone back in his coat pocket and hefted a package of peas into his cart.

And as I watched this tableau unfold from over by the Breyer's ice cream, I thought: "Wow, that is so cool!"

Because if that were me, wracked with indecision on the whole Green Giant vs. Bird's Eye issue and needing desperately to consult my wife, things would turn nightmarish in a hurry.

First I'd have to race outside into the 30-degree night and pray that I find a phone that works, which means one without 27 wads of bubble gum jammed into the coin slot, or a receiver that's been fermenting in a stale cup of Heineken for three days.

Then I'd have to pray that I actually had 35 cents in my pocket.

In other words, all the elements would have to be perfect -- the moon in the seventh house, Jupiter aligned with Mars -- in order for me to consult with my wife from a bleak phone bank outside a supermarket.

Being cell-phone-less in America is the ultimate form of disenfranchisement.

Another true story: My wife and I were in Manhattan a few days ago, looking at the Christmas displays in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, which has some kind of "Nutcracker" motif going this year.

Suddenly the guy next to me whips out a cell phone, punches a few numbers and barks: "Sid? Rich. Did you reach him? You didn't? What do we do now?!"

At that point, of course, I should have been concentrating on the holiday display. I should have been enjoying the scene with the Mouse King rallying all his mouse buddies, or the one with the Sugar Plum Fairy and little bratty Clara, or whatever her name is.

Instead, all I could think about was: "Damn, Sid didn't reach him! And now Rich is upset!"

As we lurch toward the new millennium, those of us without cell phones feel more and more out of step.

I see 14-year-olds in Blockbuster Video cradling Alicia Silverstone movies and yakking into their cell phones.

I see senior citizens clutching smart-looking Nokia 918s on the sidewalk in front of Rite Aid and discussing their lumbago with friends.

Look, let me be perfectly honest here. I don't even know what lumbago is, OK?

But it must be neat to pull out a cell phone and talk about it on a busy sidewalk.

Sometimes, when I have to make a call in public, well-meaning friends will insist I use their cell phones.

Then comes that awkward moment when I mumble: "Well, I don't really, um, know how to use one of these things."

What follows is usually a painful silence, as the enormity of that pronouncement sinks in.

Then: "OK, first you press this button," they say, as if talking to a child with a particularly severe learning disability. "Now you hit that and dial the number. There, now you're good to go."

One thing is clear: The pressure to own a cell phone is starting to get to me.

AT&T wants me to have a cell phone, Bell Atlantic Mobile wants me to have a cell phone, Sprint Spectrum wants me to have a cell phone.

I know this because of the ads in the newspapers, the commercials on TV, the phone calls I get at dinner time, just as I raise that first forkful of salad to my mouth.

But I'm not hip to the lingo of these salespeople. I find myself intimidated by the terms they toss around: activation fees, pre-paid MobileMinutes, AT&T Digital PCS.

"Now enjoy advanced wireless technology anywhere!" a young woman chirped when she got me on the phone the other night.

And I thought: You know, that ratty phone outside Safeway is looking better and better.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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