The Universal Notebook: Phone-free driving

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Hard to believe that I was 50 years old before I got a mobile phone. For 50 years I managed to survive without a phone in my pocket, but for the past 24 I have been a slave to a cell.

This sad revelation occurred to me last week when I drove out to Cooks Corner, a three-and-a-half mile drive from my home, and panicked when I realized I had left my phone at home. My first instinct was to call home to tell my lovely wife, but, alas, no.

Whatever happened to payphones? The Payphone Project lists some 83 payphones in Brunswick, nine at Bowdoin College alone, but they are all offices not phone booths. (When I read the fine print, the website confessed that most are no longer in service.) So when I couldn’t spot a phone booth, I actually contemplated asking strangers if I could make a quick local call on their phones, but then I realized how pathetic that would be.

Edgar Allen BeemThree and a half miles from home and you’d have thought I was lost in the techno-wilderness. I ran my errand, feeling strange and out of touch, and hurried home to where there are three landlines, four cellphones, desktop and a laptop computer and friendly neighbors all around.

How had I made it through half of the twentieth century without a phone in my pocket? Why there were times when I drove hundreds of miles up into the wilds of Maine and then down into the urban wastelands south of here without any way at all to signal my whereabouts or summon help.

If a car were to break down (as actually happened) on I-95 in Danvers or I-90 in Chittenango, I had to walk or thumb to the nearest gas station, call someone from a payphone, and then pay huge sums of money to get repaired or towed. We just left the old blue Volvo that died in New York and took a train home. That was in the wild and woolly 1980s.

No internet, no email, no cellphones, no GPS. I mean we were primitive peoples back in the 20th century. We thought Dick Tracy talking into his watch was sci-fi fantasy.

My first concession to staying in touch 24-7 was a clunky Tracphone, a pay-as-you-go device that I only used to let Carolyn know when to expect me as I crisscrossed Vacationland in search of news and art. Then came a series of no nonsense flip phones that fit nicely in my front pocket and only came out in emergencies, like what to do if Hannaford was out of toilet paper.

I resisted the sexy allure of smartphones until just last year when Verizon tricked me into upgrading by sending me a new flip phone that was far inferior to my old one. They said my old phone would no longer get service after the first of the year, but it died almost immediately.

After a month of cursing the balky new flip phone I broke down and upgraded to an iPhone. But decades of fingering heavy-handed flip phones mean I am constantly triggering apps and features I don’t want. I spend as much time swearing at my new phone as I do talking into it.

If I had any guts, I’d toss the infernal thing out the car window and drive off into what’s left of the future, free from the constraints of modern technology.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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