We had one of the first cellular telephones in the area during my family’s brief flirtation with crossing a class boundary, thanks to a flush of huge corporate lawsuits that boosted our family business of mostly litigation support microfilming, and in the same way one remembers where one was at the moment of an assassination, natural disaster, or sports victory, I remember my very first call on a mobile phone with great clarity.
I’d been walking around with my underpants hanging out all day at my high school, though it wasn’t as much a conscious fashion statement as a reflection of a structural flaw of corduroy that would have me declare a one man moratorium on such trousers for a good twenty-five years from that day. I’d apparently had some sort of little flaw in the fabric of the seat of my pants, mostly concealed under my v-neck velour pullover with gold piping and asymmetrical accents when I’d gone running for the bus that morning, and the little flaw worked along the fault line of the groove between ribs in the material and made its ravaging way downward throughout the day.
“Nice ass, spaceman!” yelled the bullies, and the tittering in the hallways was distinctly louder that day, though I was sufficiently studied in the practice of just passing it by while gathering the mockery into a tiny leaden ball of HA! that I kept buried in the layers of burnt muscle in my heart, so I just shrugged, wondering what new fad of cruelty was making the rounds. Had I been a little more sensitive to the issues of the physical world, I might have noticed a dramatic increase in the ventilation of my left leg, but I was lost in daydreams in those days, most of which revolved around the day when my real parents would come for me from outer space and we would collectively evaporate the bullies and the collaborators in the student body with ray guns before heading for our home planet.
In the last class of the day, my miserable art class with my wisecracking jerk of an art teacher, Mr. Perrine, I had to get some supplies at his desk, and as I walked up there, my pants torn open from the belt line to the crook of my knee, the vulva of ribbed velvet rippling as I walked, revealing my baggy white Y-fronts from Sears Surplus, the tittering erupted into guffaws.
“Nice drawers, dick!” giggled the school’s official acid casualty, his ratlike face briefly turned from bovine idiot calm to craggy bemusement.
“I don’t know why you think you’re so funny with that,” I snapped back, carrying a small tray of colored pencils back to my desk, and as I turned around, my wisecracking jerk of an art teacher, Mr. Perrine, spoke.
“I think it’s because your pants are ripped and your backside is hanging out, cowboy,” he said, and I stopped, my blood fully curdled by an adult weighing in on the matter, reached around to my leg and felt…leg.
Oh my god, my pants are ripped open. They’ve probably been ripped open all day. People have been looking at my baggy white Y-fronts from Sears Surplus all day. This is probably the worst thing that will happen to me in my whole life.
I almost certainly should have burst into tears, flung the tray into the air behind me like a colorful pencil rain, and fled, but I have composure beyond most human tolerance, so I just raised my chin, strolled back to my desk with as much of an air of stylish indifference as I could muster, and sat.
“They’re not ripped,” I declared. “It’s an accent.” This nearly caused rioting, but the class calmed down, at least to a slightly elevated level of hilarity. When the period wound down, the last class of the day, I sat, listening to the bell ringing out, pretending to be carefully arranging my knapsack, until everyone had gone but the teacher.
“You better go, Joe—you’re going to miss your bus,” he said. When I got up, I heard a snort, but I did not turn back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt. I did not go to my bus, either, because the bus was the worst scene of mockery of all, and I wasn’t going willingly into that industrial blender of social stratification. Instead, I darted through the halls to my refuge in the library, where the lovely library secretary, Mrs. Shaw, greeted me with a smile.
“Help! I tore my pants and I can’t get on the bus with my butt hangin’ out!”
I did a little supermodel twirl, revealing the full horror of my situation. She smirked, but did not laugh, because, unlike my art teacher, she had a human soul, and so she dug around her purse for her little plastic sewing kit.
“That’s a heck of a tear, Joe.”
I hid out in the curtained space of our school TV studio, trying to thread a needle, with my pants off and inside-out so I could do a few quick basting stitches, but I was so jittery with that gonna-miss-the-bus panic that I couldn’t get the thread through. I stuck my head out of the room and yelled for my secretary friend.
“Mrs. Shaw? Can you toss me a stapler?”
A stapler flew my way and I frantically stapled the ragged fabric together, then put my pants back on and walked a few stiff steps before they came undone. Pulled them off, stapled more, tried ’em on—nope. I ended up emptying the entire stapler in the task, handed it back to Mrs. Shaw, and stepped out like a robot with a jagged scar of randomly placed staples scraping up and down my thigh as I made a run for the front plaza of the school.
Naturally, the last of the buses was departing in a cloud of blue smoke.
I stood there for a moment, then stiffly staggered back to the library, the first trickles of blood already gathering in my sock.
“Can I use the phone? I missed the bus.”
I sat and waited in the library for about fifteen minutes to wait for my ride, slouching sideways on one of the benches there like Mae West on a chaise in order to favor my bristling staple scar, enjoying some gossip time with my grown-up friend, then limped out to the plaza to wait.
I looked for my father’s silver and purple Suburban, but it never showed. There was a sonorous beep, and I peered around, seeing nothing but a sleek grey sedan. I looked again, the window slid down, and my father hollered.
He had that grin he’d get when he was up to something, and man, that car was definitely up to something. What it was, in fact, was a brand new, freshly purchased charcoal grey 1983 Jaguar XJ-6 with gorgeous sweeping lines, a tasteful amount of chrome, and an interior like the kind of place where you’d wear a smoking jacket and stoke fine Cuban cigars as you’d sip a glass of port.
I opened the door, and the seat was pure virgin leather. I hesitated.
“I can’t sit on that,” I said, and turned to show my father that crusty metal-spiked still-bleeding scab that my left trouser leg had become. “I’ll tear up the leather!”
“Why are your—” my father started to ask, then stopped, sure that the answer would be long, breathless, and ultimately ridiculous. I had another idea, which was to just get into the passenger seat backwards, half-reclining it and sort of flopping forward with my butt in the air. “That’s your solution?” he said, scowling at my lack of dignity, “Why don’t you…oh, never mind. I’ll drive slow.”
From my awkward vantage point, I couldn’t help but notice the shiny handset of a car phone, clipped neatly into a cradle bolted to the side of the transmission tunnel.
“Is that real? Do we have a cellular telephone in our car?”
“I have a cellular telephone in my car, yes.”
“Ooh, I wanna call someone! Can I call someone?”
“You may, but it’s seventy cents a minute, so make it quick.”
I picked up the handset, dialed my best friend’s number, paused for a moment before I figured out that I needed to press the CALL button, and listened for the ring.
“Hi, is Vygis there?”
“Yes, he’s here, Joe. Hold on a second.”
“Hello?” my friend asked.
“VYGISVYGISVYGIS you will not believe where I’m calling from!” I shouted.
“The tailor shop?” he asked, as dry in affect as Jeeves.
“I assume you’re getting your pants fixed.”
“No, wait, did you know my pants were ripped all day? Why didn’t you tell me my pants were ripped all day? I’ve been a laughing stock!”
“I didn’t notice until the end of the day, and I thought it would make you self-conscious.”
“What? I’d rather be self-conscious than have my underpants hanging out!”
My father looked over, scowled, and said “Seventy cents a minute. Out of your allowance.”
“Never mind never mind, I’ll kill you later—HEY GUESS WHERE I’M CALLING FROM!?” I said in a flurry of words.
“Ha! I’m calling from the CAR. ON A CAR PHONE! I’m calling from a car phone!”
“Like James Bond?”
“Oh yeah. Hey, I gotta go, this is costing seventy cents a minute.”
“Call me later.”
“Yep,” I said, and pressed the red END button on the phone.
I’m living in the world of the future.
“What do you think of the engine note?” my father asked. “Smooth, huh?”
It would be a decade before he would tell me why he loved Jaguars, which went back to when he was working as an occasional tympanist and theremin player for an orchestra in Alabama, doing handyman work in-between, living in a run-down trailer outside Birmingham, and being a sort of ambiguous regular consort for a wealthy older woman with a white XK140. As Laurie Anderson said of her father, when he died, it was like a whole library burned down.
For the next few months, virtually every phone call we placed from the phone in our his car was prefaced with “Guess where we’re calling from?” and we’d wave to any other car that had the little pair of helical antennas on each side of the car. They were halcyon days of what seemed like unimaginable wealth, and it wasn’t long before my father showed up with the brick phone, and triggered a new flurry of “Guess where we are?” calls.
Later, sitting on the beach with my family, with my father lightly sunburned in his swim trunks, my mother read a book in her sun-blocking mummy outfit while Dad worked on a project, making calls on the tiny flip-out Motorola MicroTAC phone that had replaced his brick-like DynaTAC, and it all seemed au courant and amazing.
“Dad, are you going to bodysurf with us?” my brother asked. Dad looked up, held up a wait-a-minute finger, finished attending to a file folder, and walked his bandy legged walk to the sea, where we all caught the waves and got ground into the rocky bottom of the Delaware beach time and time again.
“Cleve, your phone’s ringing!” my mother hollered, holding up the little phone, then answered it as my father lumbered up the beach. “It’s Jim Summerfield!”
“Oh crap, gotta ‘tend to this.” He talked briefly, gathered up his seemingly tiny phone and briefcase, and padded his way back to our hotel room, where he would disappear into the business world for most of the rest of the weekend, and that, as it happened, would be a harbinger of the world of the future, right till the day he died on the job, on the floor of the office with his morning paper and a cup of coffee thrown in the fall.
In the future, we will be connected to each other all the time.
When I did my exit interview at the end of my previous job, six months ago, I reluctantly handed back my employer-provided iPhone, suddenly panicked at the prospect of no longer having that constant connection to the rest of the world, and had a rough month of not being able to look things up, or to access a constantly updated map, or to fill everyone I’ve ever met in on what I’m eating at any given moment, but it faded, and a calm returned that I hadn’t known in a while.
I’ve still got the phone I came in with, an ancient pay-as-you-go flip phone that’s not smart, internet savvy, or filled with games, and it’s a relationship I find altogether more manageable. I’ve got a little wifi tablet that works perfectly as a relatively well-connected internet terminal (I can check my email by pulling my motorcycle into the spot right by the door at any McDonalds and getting on their wifi), and ultimately, I am as close to the future as I plan to get.
Sitting in the moldy splendor of my relatively remote cabin in West Virginia, I can look out the window at the spot where my phone sits in an old plastic milk bottle that’s cut open on the side and nailed to a post in the hotspot where the signal gets through the gaps in the mountain ridges, and I can just hear it if a call comes in, the little tweedly sound magnified by the milk bottle like an old fashioned bullhorn. I can usually run down the hillside to catch it in time if I want, but I usually don’t want to. If I have a chainsaw accident up there, I can probably call for help, which is futuristic in the best possible way, but the luster of the rest of it isn’t what it used to be for me.
Flopping like a fish in that brand new Jaguar more than thirty years ago, I was on the cusp of a whole new world, and what’s done is done. About the internet, on the other hand, I have no such reservations, but the internet does not have the same hold on us in the way a phone does. A cell phone seemed like a miracle in my youth, but these days, I’m not so sure.
In the grocery store, a man is loudly talking to his phone in the frozen food section, clearly in a frustrating discussion over frozen peas.
“Do you want the petite peas or the regular peas? What? No, they don’t have those.”
Signals burst from the tiny phone, exchanged in a rush of bits with a tower somewhere nearby, racing through wired connections and computers and satellites and more concentrated knots of technology than anyone could have ever dreamed of when I was born back in the sixties, and we still can’t find peas.
My thigh twitches to a buzzing sensation, and I reach down, but it’s just the usual vibratory mirage, the shadow of a phone that’s sitting on my desk at home. Like phantom pain in a lost limb, we feel the twinges of anticipation when there’s nothing there.
We live in the world of the future, though it’s not quite what I was expecting.