hold the phone

(photo courtesy softservegirl on flickr)

 The other day I took my husband to see David Sedaris.  We don’t get out much, so I was very excited.  The huge theater was packed full of people with snazzy duds and sharp haircuts.  It was a smart-looking crowd so, of course, I strained hard to eavesdrop. 

The couple next to me was fixed in the glow of his cell phone displaying a game-board; they muttered a cryptic exchange I couldn’t follow.  The group in front of us spent the time passing their phones around, posing for photographs, then viewing and commenting upon the photos they took.  The couple to our right us didn’t speak at all—they were busy checking their Facebooks. 

When David Sedaris came on, he was a faceless figure wearing dark pants and a white shirt standing behind a huge podium.  That’s all I could see. I love Sedaris, but it struck me as some modern-day kind of weird to be sitting among people who might have interesting experiences to share but don’t because they are fixated elsewhere—first on their little pocket screens, then on a barely discernable man reading about his life from a book, a man who would probably be experienced more fully on a little screen.  That is, if I had one. 


When they discover that I do not own a cell phone on purpose, some people move quickly from sympathy to scorn.  I can see it in their eyes.  Suddenly, I’m a pariah.  They back slowly away before I infect them with whatever is wrong with me.  

Other people think it’s sort of cute—as charming as a rotary dial and endearing as your grandmother’s doily collection—not the kind of cute you want in your house but an oddity you are happy to know.  “This is my friend Anna who doesn’t own a cell phone.  Isn’t that adorable?”

Others are full of concern.  “Your poor family!” they gasp. “How do they get a hold of you?”  No matter what I say to assure them that communication without a cell phone is possible, they continue to shake their heads and sigh, full of pity for my abused children and my poor, neglected man. 

I really don’t get it, but when people say they can’t live without their cell phone, I’m willing to believe it’s true.  Probably, they need it for work.  Perhaps things like avalanches and motor malfunctions and violent civil rights infringements aren’t hypothetical in their life, in which case they should certainly have their phone and my sympathy, too.  Maybe if they couldn’t look at photo uploads right away, they’d forget what their loved ones look like or without voicemail, they’d forget the sound of those voices.  Perhaps sometimes, texting really is more important than holding the steering wheel.   Clearly most people seem to agree on this, so I’m willing to play along. 

But I don’t need a cell phone.  

Still, for my birthday one year, John gave me one.  While he showed me how it worked, I just smiled and nodded, trying not to say what came to mind, like Where’s the button for a foot massage, because that’s something I could really use and If you want to know where I am at all times, couldn’t I be fitted with a subcutaneous global positioning device instead? Sensing my suppression, he asserted that even homeless people have cell phones. I thought if I was homeless, he’d probably get me a necktie, but I held my tongue because I knew that this was supposed to be a loving gesture from my generous man and that maybe, just maybe, it would bring us closer. 

The next day, when the phone rang, it nearly scared me to death.  “Hello?” I gasped.

“Hi.  It’s me,” John said.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m driving the girls to school like I do at this time every day.  Or I was driving until the phone rang and I had to pull over to dig it out of my bag.  Why? What’s the matter?” 

“Nothing.  I just wanted to see if it worked.”

Okay, so my first time on the cell phone wasn’t transformative.  The earth didn’t shake, I didn’t see the fireworks everyone claimed to see.  Maybe it just took practice. 

(the original smart phone)

But every time the phone rang, it was the same:  updates, reports, reminders, things that might be remembered (do we remember how to remember?) or left on an answering machine and dealt with later, at my leisure.  And standing in a public place with a phone to my ear sharing my one-sided conversation with the world made me feel like a faker with a fancy prop, like Maxwell Smart with his shoe-phone, not powerful or connected at all but rather obnoxious and harried and vaguely ridiculous. 

A phone is like a baby barging in, regardless of where I am (on the toilet, in the middle of a juicy conversation, writing in a rare and precious lone moment) and demanding immediate attention.  The cell phone is a cranky little boss that screams, Me, me,me!  Now!  Now! 

Look.  I promise, my not having a cell phone is not going to hurt you.  In fact, you can use me as an example.  When you think you might die because you forgot to recharge your battery, when you have to confiscate your teenager’s phone for texting the answers to the test or sending naked self-portraits to strangers,  you can remember my story and know that you will survive, that this too shall pass.  If you get caught screening your calls, you can say, hey, at least I’m not like that weirdo who doesn’t even own a cell phone. 

Besides, we still don’t know if cell phones cause cancer: according to The New York Times, they don’t,  but according to The Scientific American they might. And in case you refused to notice, Big Brother (Google et al) is using your phone to monitor your every move shouldn’t that make a person pause and reflect for just one moment?   

But fear isn’t the reason I don’t have a phone, just as fear hasn’t compelled me to buy one.  I simply prefer to be doing what I’m doing when I’m doing it.  I prefer sex to sexting.  I’d rather talk than text.  The time I spend with the people in my life feels precious and rare. I guess I don’t like to be interrupted.  

Yes, I agree cell phones can be fun (hiptastic, scrabulous, and googlicious) but I don’t think I need one in order to exist. 

But if you do, that’s cool. You’re cool.  And if I ever have a real emergency, maybe I can borrow yours?

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.


  1. You eavesdrop? :-)
    I am rereading Autobiography of Malcolm X and I was struck by the worldwide impact the man had without cell phones or internet. It made me reflect on my youth and life before electronic exchange of news and even I who lived during that time was stumped: how did we mass communicate back then? Then I reflected on how widely know the Roman exploits were and they only had people shouting on platforms in town squares! Human will get the point across whatever the technology is, just like birds have been broadcasting their whereabouts for eons…nature seems to have no problem disseminating information….and here I bought my first smart phone this week! will have to rethink it after reading this…

    • I don’t have a cell phone… but I’m on my computer all day! Tee hee. And I think you need your smart phone. Maybe if they make one shaped like a shoe, I’ll be tempted. Thank you for reading! xoox

  2. What a strange world we live in. I’ve considered getting rid of my cell phone many times and then gotten over the idea when I realize my minor addiction to the convenience of it- after all, how can I call to say I’m going to be late or I’m lost on the road or other such things without having to pull over and find a….pay phone (are there even any out there any more?)! Who has time for that?!

    Anna, I love this piece! You paint a picture of what so many of us have become wonderfully well… And as usual with your essays, I got a couple of good chuckles and some food for thought. I’m going to revisit my query… Can I live without a cell phone?

    • No, there are no more pay phones. You’re right, it is so easy and convenient– and I find that making plans with a person who has a cell phone is sometimes difficult, because I write down a date and time and directions, while a person with a phone lives under the assumption that they can just keep calliing, over and over, until the meeting occurs. The cell phone has def. changed everything.
      Always looking forward to chuckles with you. xoox

  3. Aia Bower

    Chère Anna,

    Once again, you are brilliant! And honest and funny. And such an expressive writer! You say things so well. You paint the picture and reveal things so straight on and yet so eloquently. Thank you for the honor to read your work.

    Regarding your 20 Things about you from FB a long time ago, I meant to write back to you on that. I read yours around the time that I had first joined FB, and your 20 Things was the best thing I had read in a long time! Yours touched me, moved me, made me giggle, and reminded me that although it had been so many years since we had seen each other, that there was such a connection in terms of the goofy way we think or feel our way through our lives. Our geography, circumstances, your being a mommy, me not, your having the courage to really write, me not…..that there remains a precious connection. And what I am trying to say is that you inspire me.

    Writing, to me, requires so much honesty, so much patience, and courage. Immense courage. I bow down to you in utter respect.

    Thank you a gain for sharing your writing with me, with us.

    Love & bisous from Paris,

    • Aia! How do you always manage to write such lovely things? Really, your kindness is breathtaking, and I think your comment will encourage me for weeks. When you do write more, I am first in line to read it, for I’m certain it will be as beautiful and inspiring as your notes. (Until then, your photos are as eloquent as any writing could be.) I look forward to seeing you again one day for a good laugh.

  4. 2blu2btru

    LOL…the only reason I “need” a cell phone is because I’m a single woman living on her own in a city that’s forty-five minutes away from the first available person I can call for help (the boyfriend). As I’ve already experienced random flat tires (and flat spares) in scary places without AAA, it does come in handy. I’m not obsessed with my phone, however; I usually don’t use it much of the day. In fact, this month I logged a whopping 120ish minutes, and those spent talking to my mom at my lunch hour a time or two. But I’m a rarity.

    I would much rather read a real book than read on a phone or device. Whenever possible, I like sitting across from someone having a conversation rather than doing so over the phone. However, sometimes our wired society and people always on the go make it impossible to enjoy those things, so I give in where I have to.

    I enjoyed this piece. Some things people ignore in favor of their phones is downright ridiculous.

    • I absolutely agree that some people need them and I’m lucky not to be one of them. And I must admit that the hiptastic app is so cool I’d almost buy a phone just for that, and if I had scrabble in my pocket, I’d never look up. So thank god I don’t need one, because if I had one, I’d probably need it. Isn’t that how things work? The other day I watched a kid dangling from the monkey bars, screaming bloody murder, while his mother chatted five feet away. Wow!
      Thank you for reading!

  5. Amrita

    I think of cell phones the way I think about televisions. I never owned a television for years, until last year when Bill moved in with me. I saw all my friends who were couch potatoes spending their time watching tv instead of doing other things like painting, reading, thinking, resting, kissing, etc…

    Now we have a tv and I’ve learned that it’s not the technology per se, it’s how people choose to use it. Yes it’s very easy to get into a habit of being attached to every buzz and beep of your phone (I’ve been guilty of that), but I now use my phone differently. I turn it off, or let it go to voicemail, I ignore texts or emails until I feel like reading them, but I do love being able to look something up if I forgot the info at home, or being able to figure out what the song on the radio is by pressing the Shazam button and yes, with an elderly parent who has been near death more than I’d like in the last 3 years, I do like the peace of mind knowing that I can be away from home and be reachable if there was an emergency.

  6. I know that many, many people need their phones– I’m not trying to deny the phone’s convenience!–I’m just saying that we don’t all need one. I’m always trying to make a distinction with my girls between the things they really, really need and the things they want– and to be aware of the choices we make, what we forego for what we choose. And isn’t it funny how your life changes when you’re sharing space? Sometimes those soap-box stands we used to take don’t seem so important. If I lived alone, I wouldn’t have a tv, but we have over three hundred channels. *sigh* But sometimes, I have to admit, I THANK GOD for television!

  7. I was interested, had thoughts provoked, and I smiled! It’s good to hear that someone doesn’t want or need a cell phone. Takes some of the heat off me because lately, I’ve been the odd one out because I don’t see the point of having online access in my phone. Even if I could pay that bill, how would I make out anything on that tiny screen! And don’t get me started on mp3 players in phones!!? Just the thought of that puts the same look on my face that Natalie Portman had for most of her Saturday Night Live rap video.

    As far as I’m concerned, the most important aspect of my phone is 911 access and the way I used it last week when I called my sister from the corner before my house and conducted a conversation (in front of the suspicious weird guy hanging out there and staring at me for no good reason) from there until I was safely inside my front door. Before cell phones, I would have had to turn around and go back to the busier street to try to lose the guy, or stand at a bus stop for a while until he got bored. But I’m still here and unaccosted, so that worked, too. In the end we each have to be true to ourselves, so I’m with you. And, regarding the phone your husband got you, maybe you can silence the ringer (and the vibrate function) so you can keep it charged and with you if you need it, and you can completely ignore it otherwise. :)

    PS: I love David Sedaris and a world in which people pay to watch him read!

    • LOVE Natalie Portman’s crazy mug in that skit! And her swearing and her funny hands. So damn funny.
      Wow. Cell phone can be a handy prop, huh? A tool of self-defense. Even if you were faking the conversation, a guy would have to think twice. I guess I should reconsider all the other uses for a cell phone. I’m glad you’re here and unaccosted.
      We got rid of mine when it became clear I was never, ever going to remember to charge it. Ha. I guess a passive-aggressive approach can sometimes work! :) Only I really did forget to charge it, but probably subconsciously on purpose.
      What makes you feel more ignored– when your friend doesn’t pick up her cell phone or when she doesn’t answer the phone? Isn’t it just a little bit ruder if I ignore my cellphone? I don’t know.
      Love your post-script. So funny and true! And I’d rather watch DS read than watch most celebrities’ antics.

  8. So good as usual. I don’t know where to begin commenting, so someday I’ll just have to do my own blog post about cell phones, I guess. I don’t think you are weird for not having a cell phone, Anna; I think you are weird for feeding crows. ;) I was cell-phoneless until late 2008, after my car broke down on the way back from picking up my sister’s kids and I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help call for help, since my niece’s phone wouldn’t work in that area. I have a Trac-phone which I pay about a hundred dollars a year for, and which I go for days without checking. The texting part is nice if you use it just as a “non-intrusive” way of getting hold of friends/family without making them immediately respond to a phone call. Kind of like sending a “mini-email”, asking my neighbor if his son would like to play with my daughter that day (Heaven forbid we’d walk next door and knock), or a message to my friend that “Yes I would like to fishing today”. I think the nearly-constant back and forth texting by a LOT of people is just plain ridiculous.

    • Yes! Write one about cell phones! You always crack me up, so I can’t wait to see what you have to say.
      And hey now, I’m sure it is a little weird to feed a crow, I’m the first to admit to being a little weird :) but I’d like to hear why you think so. Is it just the crow or birds in general? Hmmm….
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Actually, I’m the one who’s “weird about” birds in general. Since I am human and have “things”, it seems, sometimes, that the only thing birds are good for is pooping on anything and everything of mine. It seems like I have to get out the hose every day in early summer and do “the birdshit patrol”. Where do they go in late summer? To the river beds, where the worms have gone in the dry season??? We don’t seem to have too many crows in my neighborhood; they are interesting to watch but have a terrible, malevolent-sounding call, I think. For lack of a better term, I guess I’m a “bird-elitist” (sounds dumb, I know), in that I don’t think them worthy of having around if they aren’t really pretty (like, say, a pheasant), really majestic (hawk or eagle), or have a really pretty song (mourning doves are by far my favorite–very soothing sound). Birds that go around and just poop on everything we own, and just chirp, and chirp, and chirp, and chirp, and…. well, I just don’t have time for them. I know that we are trying our best to ruin their world, but at least we go to the bathroom in certain prescribed places.

        So that’s my bird thing. I was hoping to get a rise out of you by commenting about the crows. If anything, I’d say that they are so clever and self-sufficient that they could probably survive the Apocalypse along with Twinkies and roaches, and don’t need our help so much, but it sounds like you have had great fun with it. And I have very much enjoyed the thoughts that your bird-feedings have led you to.

        Oh, and everyone knows the favorite food of any crow is also one of the most popular human foods: McDonald’s french fries.

  9. I know someone who got written up in the NYT for not having a cell phone (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/technology/23cell.html) and I seem to remember he got actual hate mail about it. It’s fascinating how different people relate to their technology. I hate talking on the phone, so my cell phone is little more than a convenience (we don’t have a land line), but if I’m home and there’s no internet, I hardly know what to do with myself. We don’t have a TV, either; an acquaintance noticed it once and asked earnestly, “But what do you DO?” (He was, at the moment, a guest at a dinner party I was hosting in my home.) There was the time I didn’t answer my cell phone for a day because I was busy, and my mom decided I was dead and called my husband’s office in a panic; she reacted much the same way when my youngest sister temporarily suspended her Facebook account during finals. It’s a curious world.

    Oh, and in spite of my cell phone I sometimes feel like an oddity because the phone doesn’t have internet. (Well, it does, but it’s nearly impossible to navigate.) Or because I don’t have a laptop. Basically I do not have mobile internet, and based on my experiences there, that’s soon going to be the new “oh my goodness, you don’t have___!”

    • Wow! I didn’t know I wasn’t alone!!!! I feel suddenly so warm and fuzzy. But I notice the article is 3 years old– does he still go without a cellphone or has he caved?
      I thought it interesting that the writer characterized p.w.c.p. as “smug”– maybe the ones she met are but I don’t feel smug about it. I think that I might have an edge to my voice due to the annoyance of having to explain myself repeatedly over the years, maybe that edge sounds smug. Hmmm.
      Thanks for the article and for the sympathy and for reading!

      • I don’t know if he still goes without a cell phone — we’re online friends so it doesn’t arise in our interactions — but I would guess he hasn’t caved. :)

        Seems like lots of people characterize others as “smug” in various situations; it’s what I wrote about on my post a week or two ago (about reviews of Away We Go). Something to think about there.

  10. wordsfallfrommyeyes

    Ha! I DO relate, though I do now have a mobile. I actually don’t know anyone in this new town I’ve brought my son and me to, so there isn’t many numbers on it – but I was able to tell work my mobile number! I totally agree re talking on the phone though. I always stop what I’m doing, find a corner of a building and lean into the wall with my hand over my mouth, my eyes shut so I can concentrate, and talk like that! I don’t know how people walk along talking away. Very interesting post :)

    On the side, I note you subscribed. Thank you very much, I’m really honoured. So, are you ready for a true story – because that’s what it is…

    • Yes! Speaking is hard enough, let alone speaking and doing anything else, like patting one’s head and rubbing one’s tummy, just can’t do it. I’m always ready for a true story. Bring it on!

  11. I don’t have a cell phone. Nothing against the cell variety in particular, I just hate phones in general. I lived in Europe for four years. No phone. In my bachelor years I lived for several years without a phone. First of all they’re rude. They interrupt. They are always being bugged in movies. So they can listen to what’s going on in your home. And they scare me. Next to the automobile, the worst invention of the 20th century.

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