An earlier, shorter version of this piece appeared in the LARB Quarterly Journal. More information about the journal here.
Echo Park Lake is almost back. […] Before it was refilled [...] workers found two guns, one toilet, 20 Frisbees and a pay telephone.
— Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2013.
I’M SEATED next to a colleague at a celebratory dinner (a charming, young-ish man) delighted to have his attention, of course I am, waiting for my salmon fillet with no bigger fish to fry. Whereas my youthful friend is on a tony assignment and facing a deadline (he’s told me so), expecting notes from his editor any minute. So I shouldn’t be surprised when he pulls his phone out of his pocket. But I am — a little — surprised, and the tiniest bit put out, too; mock-insulted, but sort of appalled (this really can’t wait?), and I snap — half in fun, as if he were my brother, or even my son — “You put that thing away.” He, in turn, feigns shame: dutifully shoves the thing, slim and gleaming, back into his pocket as if we’d rehearsed. Although we both know he’s indulging me — that it’s okay for him to have the phone at the table; acceptable not just to sneak a peek now and then, but to actually be in two conversations at once. Some of you are just that good: you can chat each other up as you make the requested changes — even just-about-convince your less-connected dinner partner that you’re genuinely pleased to be in her company — and all before pudding is served.
Months ago now, we invited a couple (in town for his birthday) for drinks at the house before dinner in Chinatown, where we drove in separate cars — each spouse with the other (since we knew the way, and they didn’t). When she and I arrived at the restaurant, they were already seated — my husband absently arranging his chopsticks, while hers madly scrolled and typed into his phone. Who could blame him, it being his birthday? Who could fault this affable guy for reading and texting straight through the meal — from the fried dumplings to the fortune cookies — especially since he didn’t miss a beat, fluently conversed, deftly fielded questions — about health care, the Middle East, the Supreme Court, movies, books, art — even as he chatted up relatives and friends all across the country. In this case, I wasn’t about to play his big sister — we’re not that chummy for one thing; plus, he has kids of his own; plus, I wasn’t especially insulted — didn’t feel ancient or chippish or professionally wanting as I had that other time. Still, remember when messages were messages? Remember when we came home at the end of the day and answered them?
Sunday in the park, and just ahead, a woman and a man with a baby in a stroller are stopped in the middle of the path. He’s shouting at her back: “We’re not on the phone! We’re on a walk!”
By the time I pass them, she’s done with the call and is out ahead with the baby, while, in a fury, he staggers and trips in his effort to catch up. “It was work,” she hisses over her shoulder. “I don’t care,” he screams, clearly out of his mind. “I don’t give a fuck! I’d like to break that thing in half!”
“Why,” I ask my husband, not so many days later, “do you have to take that call?” Never mind how beautifully modulated my tone, I know how I sound. Like a harpy. Like my mother — like somebody’s mother anyway; or somebody’s spouse, generically reproachful — sanctimonious and sour if not temporarily insane. As if I need his undivided attention; as if we haven’t spent the morning together; as if we don’t have the rest of the day, not to mention our lives.
Well, but in my defense: we’re hiking. We’re not on the phone, we’re on a hike. A hike with the dog — the birds are chirping, the squirrels are chittering, when I hear this clang. Coming from the pocket of my beloved. Clang, clang. Which is better than the theme from Close Encounters, I suppose, but why does he have his phone? Couldn’t he have left it home for an hour? “It’s work,” he says pleasantly.
He has explained, and explained again, that my values are antediluvian. What’s more, he wants to know why he can’t ever reach me: “Don’t you answer your phone?” he asks. And one evening when he calls and texts and calls again while I’m at an event (and he knows where I am), his second voice-mail actually sounds hurt. He wants me to join the real world, which means, I can only infer, that I should abandon it for the virtual one.
How often have I congratulated my juggling self? Watch me set the table, feed the dog, pick up the phone (the landline, I mean), scribble a message — all while stirring the Bolognese with my big wooden spoon — but, I’ve recently discovered, I’m not all that talented. See, if you’re not distracted by that call or text, I am. I’m the woman who takes her eyes from the big screen when a little one lights up three rows down; I hear the buzzing in your bag: what’s more, I confess, I cringe, mortified, when the creature from another planet turns out to be in my own. And when we’re having a drink at that wine bar on Sunset near Alvarado? It’s all I can do not to let my eyes stray to your screen. In which case, I can only assume — does this makes sense, please? — that I’m the one with bad manners.
Remember phone booths? Designed so as to remove the caller from the fray? To actually face her away from the crowd? Remember when there was a designated spot, or a row of them, but if you were in the row, you were probably minding your own business, or, if you were actually, purposefully eavesdropping, it was understood that you were the one abusing the privilege?
And I’ve noticed, have you? Two people conversing in a public place will lean in and lower their voices — moreover, we’ll avert our eyes if caught overhearing them. However: a person on a cell thinks nothing of shouting into it as if he had his own television show. Not so much because anybody thinks his or her conversation is more important than another, but as if, because he or she isn’t talking to us, we can’t actually hear. Or as if, because we’re not acquainted, it doesn’t matter whether we hear or not. And so it appears, doesn’t it, that if we know our audience — who might, therefore, forgive the faux pas — we’ll conduct ourselves with some modicum of decorum. Whereas if not (if we feel anonymous), we’re not just willing but wired to privately exult or grieve or wax on at extraordinary decibels about the most ordinary things — and vice versa.
So here’s what I’m asking: not what’s more compelling — the real or the virtual — but if there’s even any difference anymore. Do you stand to miss something if you dine with or without your phone in your lap? I guess that depends on who’s coming to dinner...
We’re at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert. A noisy clan has the next row down, and the woman in front of me is holding out her phone, snapping photos of herself and her date, not one, not two — 10 flashes, 15 — 16, 17, 18 — when I ask her to stop.
“You’re blinding me,” I say.
“I’m trying to capture a moment,” says she.
I have a dumb phone. That is, an old Samsung with a teeny tiny keyboard and a teeny tiny screen. I never bothered to read the instruction manual: I don’t know how to take pictures or video; I’m not connected to the web; at some point I inadvertently turned on the spellchecker and I haven’t yet figured out how to turn it off, which makes texting a bit of drag, frankly.
I used to be proud, really I was, that I didn’t know how to use my damn phone. That it wouldn’t have occurred to me to program the thing. That I’m obliged to remember your number, and dial (as it were), digit by digit, which memory exercise, I reason (to make myself feel better, because I’m less and less proud these days, and more and more apt to be tempted by apps), might wind up saving me from early onset dementia.
A few years ago, when my kids were small, we ate lunch in our favorite Mexican restaurant. We thought we knew everyone who worked in the place, but that day a new waiter arrived on the scene with set-ups for all, and a basket of chips. His tattoos grew like succulents out of his neckline and down over his bulging biceps. They were beautiful, the tattoos: purple, green, orange, and red — an Arthur Rackham illustration come to life and ready to take our order. Less enchanting (for me anyway), he also had multiple piercings — in his ears, nose, eyebrows — plus a row of silver rings in his lower lip. Hard not to look, and, harder still, not to wince when I did. As for my children? Riveted they were — unabashedly so — but how to reprimand them? Didn’t he want us to stare, after all? Wasn’t he inviting our attention?
And don’t you expect me to listen when you’re talking on the phone in the bank, in the dairy section, at the counter, and most especially in the adjacent stall? And, while I’m at it, how to ignore the rest of what’s going on in there? My bad, as they say (do they still say "my bad"?), but I can’t help staring — and I can’t help but feel I’ve been invited to the party, such as it is, when, pants around your ankles, you take that call. And I know, you don’t care what I think — here we are at the airport, flying off to different faraway cities — you’ll never see me again; I’ll never see you. But what about the person on the other end of the line, that’s what I’m asking. You want her to know you’re taking her call on the toilet? It’s that important? It’s not that important? Nothing’s that important? Everything is?
So tragic, you say. And then: She found him, poor thing.... Oh I know, all those flowers... His sister sang, don’t know how she got through it... Me too, I hate an open casket — wait a sec: a metallic hiccup; then another — my god, are you wiping? Have you put the phone down so you can wipe? And what about me: should I flush, or should I wait, or — or what should I do?
You’re thinking I’m confused, aren’t you? The decorated man is making a statement (isn’t he?). Whereas the woman in the stall is merely going about her business. Ha. But in either and all cases, is it wrong or right, acceptable or not, to stop what we’re doing and gape? To not stop what we’re doing, and not to gape? If I were to insist I’m not pronouncing — not judging — rather asking, really asking what we’re supposed to do, would you believe me?
According to Emily Post online:
While today's phones are capable of countless special functions, remember that basic etiquette still applies. Being aware of who is with you and where you are [...] as well as having an awareness of your volume and tone of voice. If you don't want anyone to hear your conversation, chances are they don't want to hear it either!
Rule Number One, she continues, as if she isn’t long dead, as if she wouldn’t be appalled if she weren’t:
Be in control of your phone, don't let it control you! Taking a call signals that the person you are with is less important than the person calling. If that’s not the impression you want to make, don’t take the call.
Except, Emily, what’s at stake here isn’t good manners. To be polite is to be inauthentic, in fact, and what could be ruder. And — in spite of admonitions to “be here now” — the idea of that exchange, with the person on the phone, is at least as compelling, as real, as satisfying, as actual contact. Why be anywhere now, stuck in one place, when you can be everywhere all the time? Except can we? What if we can’t? Is that why we answer the phone? We don’t mean to be rude, but we’re not afraid to offend if we must: we’re only afraid of missing out. The question isn’t why bring the phone, why answer the phone, but rather, who would bother to be where he couldn’t or shouldn’t? And the other question: Why go anywhere at all?
See, back at the Hollywood Bowl, where the moon, nearly full (as if that’s my excuse, as if that’s why I’m growing more and more agitated), is high in the sky, the woman in front of me is still taking pictures. Next to her, her cousin, or sister, or friend, is filming the show — not the stage but one of the jumbo screens (there are three) — I can see the screen in her screen. Beside her, a boy — her nephew? Her son? — is playing a video game, and on the other side of him (this is novel) a slightly older boy, in his teens maybe, is actually talking, talking on his phone straight through a show-stopping ballad: “I can’t believe we got these seats,” he yells into the receiver.
From up here in the nosebleeds, the singer on the stage flits about like a beautiful bird. But I wonder: would it have been any different in a Terrace Box? In Promenade Two or Three? Is this a matter of how much we were willing to spend on the tickets? Or are the phones and the apps only slightly better down in the orchestra, where, from up here, anyway, they look like nothing so much as fireflies. I’d be better off in my living room, that’s what I’m thinking. I’d get more out of YouTube — live shmive — if I only had a screen (who needs a heart, a brain...), I’d be up in her nose hairs, the singer’s I mean. And why are nose hairs so compelling on screen; why are we so impressed by high def and pixels and visible pores — on screens — when we’d rather not know about such things in person. O if I’d had the good sense to stay home and watch in my living room. And that’s when it happens: flash number 23.
I shake my head. I wipe my eyes. I blow my nose in my napkin. “Hey,” says my husband. He puts his arm around me. “Hey, maybe we should leave,” he says. And so we do. In the intermission we pack up our picnic and make for the exit.
And back at the airport (not to leave anyone hanging with her pants down): We’re out of our stalls in tandem, finding our way to the sinks opposite, she with her phone balanced just so between her ear and her shoulder: isn’t she afraid to drop it? (Wasn’t she afraid it would fall in the toilet?) Now she’s beside me, washing her hands. And me? I swear I’m rushing. To give her privacy. In the rest room. At LAX. As I turn to the dryers (the noisy kind — is it all right to activate? Should I wait — or — or should I just wipe my hands on the seat of my pants and get the hell out), she adjusts the position of the phone, then leans into the mirror to pick something from between her front teeth. A beautiful funeral, she says, she was just so moved — she will never, not ever, be the same.
Dinah Lenney is the nonfiction editor for LARB. Her memoir, The Object Parade, is out next month.