Here’s my cell phone number:  615-497-5933.

No, don’t bother dialing. I cancelled my Sprint service last week and don’t plan to renew.  I could transfer the number to another service, but my wife and I have decided to see how long we can go without owning cell phones at all.  It’s sort of an experiment, our little version of “Man vs. Wild.” Can two middle-class softies survive in the rough and tumble environment of the 1990s?  Stay tuned!

We didn’t set out to conduct an experiment; we set out to cut expenses.  I signed up for a high-minutes plan a couple of years ago, when I was renting a small office with no land-line service.  I actually used my minutes back then.  But I work at home now, and my cell phone sits on my desk for days, gathering dust.

My wife’s cell phone can usually be found in the kitchen, sharing a plastic bowl with some broken pencils, keys that don’t actually open anything, and kids’ scissors that don’t actually cut anything.  I’ve tried calling her cell phone maybe a dozen times in the past six months, usually to inquire where she is, and all I’ve ever learned is that she’s not in the kitchen.

So when I paid my Sprint bill last week, I finally wondered why I’m spending upwards of $120 per month for phones we almost never use.  My wife looked into low-minutes plans and pay-as-you-go plans, but with pretty much all of them, we’d probably end up buying minutes that will go unused and eventually expire. I’ve already paid Sprint for thousands of minutes I never used, and I’d prefer to stop spending money for the privilege of receiving a monthly bill asking for more money.

As I prepared to float the idea of just going without, I was somewhat hesitant — as if I were about to suggest we strip naked and take a walk around the block.  But then to my surprise, my wife floated the idea first.  (Going without cell phones, not the naked thing.)

It occurred to me that I’m married to perhaps the last adult woman left in America who isn’t convinced the only thing standing between her and a tragic death on some unnamed road is a cell phone.  When cell phones first became affordable, that was the excuse offered by every female in my extended family for buying one:  “I won’t really use it very much, but if something happens when I’m on the road …”

As someone born in 1958, I never understood the sudden fear of traveling phoneless.  Nobody I knew even owned a cell phone until around 1995, and even before then, road fatalities that could’ve been prevented by a timely call were extremely rare.  But once cell phones hit the market, everyone suddenly experienced a shared childhood memory of hushed conversations between their parents:

“Hey, what’s going on over at the Smith house?”
“Shhh!  Didn’t you hear?  They stalled on Interstate 40 and were eaten by wolverines while waiting to be rescued.”
“Geez … if only there was some way they could’ve called somebody.”

I didn’t buy a cell phone until my second year in Los Angeles.  They were still a bit of a novelty then and not exactly cheap, so the advertisers were in “create the need” mode.  I recall a radio commercial in which a harried businessman is stuck in traffic but saves the day by taking an important client’s call — get this — in his car!

I wasn’t a harried businessman and didn’t want a phone attached to my belt, but soon after I signed with an agent, he sold me on the idea.  His exact pitch was: “Where the @#$% have you been!  I had a @#$%ing audition lined up for you!  I will not represent you if I can’t @#$%ing reach you when I @#$%ing need to reach you!

So I bought a cell phone, and I’ve had mixed feelings about them ever since.  Sure, they’re convenient, but I dislike them for a number of reasons.  Here’s one of the biggest:  people can reach you when you’re not home.  Before cell phones, I’d sometimes leave my apartment specifically to avoid talking to anyone.  Friends, employers, creditors, and family member could always catch up with me later:

“Where were you?!”
“I was out.”
“Uh … oh.”

Nice and simple.  Nobody’s feelings got hurt.  It’s not quite the same days:

“Where were you?!”
“I was out.”
“Well, why didn’t you take your cell phone?!”
“Because I was afraid you might call.”
“Uh … oh.”

I don’t like it when people expect me to be reachable anytime, anywhere.  Even when I consciously intend to be reachable, my subconscious desires take over.  I’ll leave the house and forget my cell phone.  I’ll shut off the phone at a movie theater, then forget to switch it on for a week.  I’ve never owned a Blackberry, and if I have my way, I never will.

Another reason I don’t like cell phones:  people can reach you when you’re home.  When I was growing up, most families had one phone — usually bolted to a wall in the kitchen.  If you were sleeping upstairs, you stood a fighting chance of missing a call.  But with a cell phone, you can accidentally leave it within earshot — your wife’s, if not yours.  A few months ago, my wife shook me awake at some ungodly hour:

“Honey … HONEY!”
“Wha … what?”
“Your cell phone is ringing downstairs!  Can’t you hear that?”
“No.  That’s why I left it downstairs.”
“Are you going to answer it?”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to talk to anybody right now.”
“Well, what if it’s an emergency?”
“Sweetheart, I’m not a surgeon, and I’m not carrying the nuclear launch codes.  In all of human history, there’s never been a single emergency where somebody yelled, ‘Oh my god!  Somebody get a comedian on the phone, now!’

But the biggest reason I dislike cell phones, by far, is this:  other people own them too.  According to my analysis, at least 60 percent of all modern phone conversations are boring, pointless, moronic or embarrassing  — although the talker who should be embarrassed rarely is.  Yes, there were boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing phone conversations before cell phones, but

  1. There weren’t as many, because calling outside your own city was expensive.
  2. You could only engage in a boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing phone conversation in a relatively private place … your home, your hotel room, the nearest phone booth, etc. 

Now you can have a boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing conversation in a restaurant, on a train, at a ball game, on a park bench, in the grocery store, in a movie theater, or on an airplane the very second it touches down.  Millions of people do — usually two feet away from me, and usually while talking to someone who is apparently hearing impaired.  The more common cell phones have become, the more people seem to be talking on the phone simply because they can … or because it’s less mentally taxing than staring off into space.  So while trying to read a book in an airport,  I get to listen to deep conversations such as:

“Hi.  Nothing, what’re you doing?  Cool.  Yeah?  No, I missed that one.  Huh?  Oh, it’s like nine o’ clock here.  Yeah.  Are you going to work soon?  Cool.  What color shoes are you wearing?  Yeah, those are nice.  Huh?  I can’t understand you; are you eating breakfast?  Yeah?  No, I can’t; they’re bad for my hemorrhoids.”

So rather than buy a product a part of me wishes hadn’t been invented in the first place, I’ll try to go without.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

16 Responses to “Hold the Phone?”
  1. SnowDog says:

    $20 for a cheap phone, then $6 per month, pay as you go. You can tie it to your credit card and never worry about the bill, unless you use a lot of minutes. They actually charge 20 cents per minute for the first 10 minutes of every call, then 10 cents afterwards, but if you don’t use your cell phone, it’s a minimum of $6 per month.

    I’ll look into that … if I decide I need a cell phone again.

  2. Aaron says:

    That sounds wonderful. I hate having a cell phone — having any phone, really. It’s the worst possible form of communication. You don’t know what you’re interrupting when you call someone, and most of the time it’s to ask or say something that could have waited on their convenience. Email is far better for that, and if I need to have an actual back-and-forth conversation, I’ll walk several blocks to speak to someone in person rather than make a phone call.

    Keep the phone after you cancel your service, though. Any cell phone, whether you’ve paid for service or not, can make 911 calls. So you can keep it in the car and make that emergency anti-werewolf call when the time comes.

    I didn’t know about the 911 service. That’s a great tip, especially since the biggest excuse for carrying around a cell phone is “but what if there’s an emergency?”

  3. Chad Wallace says:

    Tom, you are spot on with this one. You’ll remember i worked for several years for a cellular provider, and I still never had my own cell phone. Didn’t need one! I view it as kind of a reverse status symbol that there are times of the day that I simply am ‘out of touch’. Always felt that if something terrible happens, I’ll stop and borrow a phone if I have to.

    When I got laid off last summer and my employer turned off the company cell phone, I felt it necessary to get a personal cell phone – that was needed only for 2 months total. I of course do have a company cell phone again now since I’m in sales, but most times it sits silent too. I guess I’m showing my age, since though I have the newest 3g iPhone, I can’t see myself sitting here and playing with ‘apps’. If it dials, receives and can check email sometimes, thats good enough!

    Also, as a matter of practice, I refuse to drive and take a call, since one or the other will inevitably suffer – wish more people would ‘shut up and drive’.

    I’m wich’ya, especially on driving and talking. Even when I had a cell phone, I just let the stupid thing ring if I was driving. Nobody needs to reach me that desperately.

  4. Neil Fraser-Smith says:

    Oh Tom, let me tell you when both you and your wife will never be without those cell phones.
    It will be the first time one of those young girls of yours goes out on her own (both of them will have had cell phones for years by then).
    On her first ‘date’ you will be saying “Have you got your cell phone, call me if there are ANY problems”. Or do you want to live with ‘wondering’ if they are both OK whenever you leave the house? That’s why all parents have cell phones Tom, the rest is just a bonus.

    I hope my daughters aren’t dating for at least 10 years. I doubt I’ll last that long without one, but it’s a worthy goal.

  5. Fantastic idea, and oddly reminiscent of my family’s patterns. Especially calling my wife and finding out she is not in the kitchen.

    You might find Ken Myer’s essay on cell phones interesting. Written back in 2005, his reasoning is different, but related. He found that the act of jabbering on a cell phone in public is dehumanizing – it says to everyone around you, “My life is more important than yours.” Up to that point, I thought the garage door opener was the most toxic invention – allowing me to go years without ever saying hello to my neighbors, but Myer’s piece persuaded me that it is the cell phone.

    Do you remember that commercial of a year or so ago where all of these men were in a prison yard. which represented the inability to switch carriers without losing your phone number. One guy leapt the wall and landed in TV heaven: a pool party going on at some mansion. He was free! All around the pool were strong young men, and lovely young ladies… all talking on cell phones! This is heaven? Everyone is talking to someone else, like… no one wants to be HERE!

    Key Myers on cell phones:

    PS: Fat Head is a brilliant piece of work!

    Nice essay, captures a lot of how I feel about the darned things. I appreciate the compliment on the film as well.

  6. David LaCivita says:

    I embraced the mobile phone and prefer to carry one and lose the land line. I have spent an ungodly amount of money on a Google Nexus One and now I almost never sit at my computer. In addition, I rarely take a phone call on it because everyone knows they can reach me by text message or email. I figure if I am going to have one I might as well have one that does so much other stuff it is worth having.
    Sure, people can reach me anytime but by habit, my friends know if I don’t pick up its because I am busy. I come at it from the other direction. Now I can reach anyone anytime.
    Since I got a mobile phone I have been in 2 fender bends, neither were my fault. The first time I had my phone/camera and took oodles of pictures and had no problems proving fault. The second time was an almost exact situation (same intersection at the mall!) but I didn’t have my phone/camera and the other person did. That was a fight.
    I say people should go to either extreme. Nothing at all or a super cool mini computer that also makes and receives call.

    That’s what I want: one little machine that does it all, including making coffee.

  7. Chareva says:

    I think David has the right idea. If you’re going to have a cell phone, you should also be able to check your email, posts and Tweet etc. If you do more traveling I can see its usefulness.

    At some point we should learn how to text. I’ll be in my office upstairs. You in yours downstairs. We could be thirty feet apart and never see each other.

    Very funny post, by the way.

    So it would be like now, only more so?

  8. Kate says:

    The only reason I had a land line for years was that it was a requirement to have DSL (cable service was terrible). Finally MegaPhoneCorp dropped that requirement, so I’m back to only having a cell phone. One or the other, you really don’t need both a land line and a cell phone. And you can eventually train your friends to leave voicemail so you can call them back when YOU feel like it. Most of my younger friends don’t call, they text, mostly to see if anyone has plans, and to not interrupt others if they are already busy.

    But I am with you on the whole yak yak yak in public thing. GAAAH! Talk quieter, or just wait until you’re alone!

    Good point; I can at least avoid listening to other people’s texts in public.

  9. Josh says:

    Oh, man do I wish I could convince my wife to do this. No more “Hey, on your way home could you run by the store…” or “Yeah, I know you’re on your way home right now, but I figured I’d tell you about my whole day over the phone”.

    I was fortunate in that my wife was never a big cell-phone gabber. She usually forgot to take hers with her anyway.

  10. Mark says:

    I second the Virgin Mobile recommendation. I’ve been using them for years and have been happy with the service and the low costs. And you can get their cheapest phones for just $10. You don’t actually pay $6 per month, but have to make a purchase every 90 days – either $20 every 90 days or you can reduce it to $15 if you set it up automatically with a credit card or PayPal account (and you usually get a one-time $5 credit for setting up the auto-payment). I first heard about Virgin Mobile from Clark Howard, the Consumer Warrior. It’s targeted at a young crowd, so you have to tolerate all the “hip” attitude.

    I agree with you that people act like they need to use their cell phones waaaay more than they actually NEED to use them. I like having the ability to contact someone or be contacted when I’m away from a convenient landline, but I won’t hesitate to turn it off when I don’t want to be disturbed.

    I’ll give it a look. Sounds like it might be the right solution for a very occasional user.

  11. DK says:

    Can two middle-class softies survive in the rough and tumble environment of the 1990s?

    The answer is yes. I never owned one, my wife had a cell phone for a few months then canceled. Not missing it. True, our jobs do not include dealing with people much, so I suppose that makes it easier. Our teenage kids have cell phones but we are not paying for the service.

    Cell phones are probably the best example of the triumph of advertising over the common sense. When I travel, it never ceases to amaze me how in even the most impoverished countries the obligatory attribute of poor young adults are cell phones. Mind boggling!

    So far, I’m not missing it at all.

  12. Jim says:

    It really makes people nervous when you act differently. People will never leave you alone until you get a cell phone again :). I have one for work but my wife went without for years and it drove her mother and her friends nuts. Finally they couldn’t stand it anymore so they got together and they bought her one and they pay for the minutes.

    Since they used the “what if you and the kids are stuck on the road” excuse, my wife keeps the phone in the car where they still can’t reach her most of the time.

    I like your wife’s idea. I may have to try that one if I get another phone.

  13. Valerye McGreevy says:

    Kudos, Tom! I tried to go “celluless” last year when I closed my business. (Yay! FReedoM!) And it worked until I agreed to assist a friend who is a full-time working mom in homeschooling her child. She wanted to make sure she could reach me no matter where I was with her kid, so she added me to her family cell plan…

    We’ll see how long I can go without. Since I work at home, it hasn’t been an issue so far.

  14. Kevin McGreevy says:

    From personal experience I can tell you that it’s entirely possible to live without a cellphone. I’m 45 years old and I’ve never owned one. Shoot, I don’t even own a laptop, though my wife does. I use a desktop computer in the home that I’ve taken offline – I use it to play Age of Empires for a couple of hours at a time once a month or so.

    I’ve never sent a text message, much less received one. Shoot, I didn’t even get my driver’s license until I was 31 and only then because my wife lost hers on speeding points. It’s amazing how much reading you can get done riding a bus, waiting for a bus, or just walking to and from destinations.

    I like the fact that when I’m away from work I’m away from work. I’ve got a perfectly serviceable answering machine that I check once or twice a week. Seeing the flashing number on the device doesn’t inspire to me push any buttons.

    If it’s important they’ll call back (and back and back…). If they’re not willing to call back, it wasn’t that important. Or they can call me at work.

    Spot on. Nobody ever needs me RIGHT NOW.

  15. Alexia says:

    I like having my cell phone on me (for emergencies LOL actually for when I’m away from my boys, I like to know the babysitter’s can call me whenever…well and the wolverines), but I still don’t answer it most of the time. Everyone knows you might as well leave a message cause I won’t pick up.

    Really, though, with all the cell phones floating around, one doesn’t need one for emergencies. Last time my car broke down (on a freeway off-ramp) I had, at least, four people roll their window down and wave their cell phone at me but not a single one stopped to see if they could just help me get my car started. (so I sat at the side of the road for an hour while I waited for the help I called…on my cell phone).

    The only time I would’ve felt lost without a phone if I broke down on the highway was during my comedy tours out west — loooong stretches of road with no other drivers. But cell phones are useless in those areas anyway.

  16. Sam says:

    Mobile phones are awesome – if you turn off the ringer. (And that means silent mode, not vibrate.)

    This way you get the best of all worlds: instant connectivity when *you* want it, not when someone else does.

    Of course this wouldn’t work very well if everybody followed this scheme, but luckily that’s not likely.

    I’m still getting along quite nicely without one. We’ll see.

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