Columns, Michael Leonberger

Funeral for a Phone | Michael Leonberger

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Lemme take you to the suburbs right outside Washington, DC, circa 2004. This is the advent of the cell phone.

Not in general. Not in real history, but for the adolescent American youth living near the capital. The suburbs where kids now wear collared shirts for fun, whose gang members ride around on mopeds and brandish cell phones instead of switch blades.

At first, people worried that these slick little gizmos would give us brain cancer, buzzing right up against our ears, but we didn’t care. Teenage us: we now had our very own telephones! They could have pulled our skin inside out, or caused our eyeballs to come oozing out of their sockets, and we wouldn’t have traded them in for the world. We were social animals with veracious appetites and we could now talk to each other 24/7.

World beware.

It’s actually mind boggling to think about it: suddenly having your own phone, without a phone line, on your person at all times. It’s like having a television set in your pocket, or a computer…which is exactly what your phone is now, isn’t it?

Back then, you could only really make phone calls and text. I was one of those bozos who really didn’t understand what texting was at first. I remember getting new messages from people whose names I hadn’t put into my contact list yet, and just staring blankly at them, marveling at them, wondering from which alien space ship these messages had come. It was a fascinating thought: that someone out there would want to send me a message, outside of school. We weren’t really hanging out: we were just chatting.

And my first cell phone had that in spades. Not so much in the way it lived, but in the way it died (how else can we really judge anything?). I remember it was sleek: gray and black and silver, like Robocop, and I suppose I loved it, in the dull way you love things that aren’t real.

What a concept!

And, the jerk that I was, I didn’t reply. I didn’t know how, for like six months, just letting these strange little text blurbs pile up, smiling that I had friends, unsure exactly how to communicate with them. Adolescents are weird, folks: this, exhibit A, testifies to that fact.

So there was a time, not so far off, where all this was new and bizarre. This was around the time of AOL Instant Messenger, when we were all groping out in the dark, trying to get to know each other without actually physically communicating. We were on the cusp of a great wave: the line of demarcation between today’s older folks and today’s youth. Late eighties/early nineties babies have a strange advantage: we walked the technological line.

As of last month, I’m on my fourth cell phone. I’ve felt intimate connections to each, so maybe this will serve as some kind of eulogy. Note, however, that I am not technologically savvy in the slightest when it comes to cell phones. I’m utilitarian with mine, and I’ve witnessed the Rise of the Apps with the detachment of a scientist. I don’t know makes and models. The only thing that sticks out in my head is character.

And my first cell phone had that in spades. Not so much in the way it lived, but in the way it died (how else can we really judge anything?). I remember it was sleek: gray and black and silver, like Robocop, and I suppose I loved it, in the dull way you love things that aren’t real.

I have a long, strange, sordid history of loving inanimate things. I’m the kid who always named everything. I had a basketball I named Tina when I was probably seven, no lie, and I never even really played basketball. I think I always hoped my first girlfriend would be named Tina. There’s probably a mountain of psychological research about kids who name everything trying to maintain some paltry degree of control over their lives. All I know is that it was weird.

(I also forced myself to eat every last scrap of food on my plate, because I didn’t want to separate the food family. Attributing personalities to your food has got to have some fancy name in the DSM. I wanted every last bean scrap to be reunited in my gut, so they wouldn’t have to face the toilet alone. Go figure.)

That was a purposeless tangent, because I never named my first phone, but I would have if it hadn’t been socially unacceptable. I would have named it Murphy, after Robocop, so that’s what we’ll call it: Murphy. That machine. Indestructible.

Seriously, I’ll give you an example: I remember playing a particularly hectic game of ping pong after school one day, and feeling the need to dive after the ping pong ball as it sailed past me. I don’t know what level of Olympic Hell would require diving after a ping pong ball, and I can guarantee you that non-athletic me didn’t get the ball or make a point, but I do remember there being girls there. Maybe this dive was some form of flirting (exhibit B as to the strangeness of the adolescent). I figured, the more injured I got playing a sport (this sport, any sport, who cared!), the more irresistible I’d be.

So I dove, and I failed, and I lost, and I didn’t end up any cooler in the eyes of any female AND, to make matters worse, I landed on Murphy. Crushed that sucker in my pants pocket. Had I forgotten it was in my pocket? Possibly. Cell phones were new, remember? And poor Murphy was some kind of infant. Funny, because now, I’d never forget my phone was in my pocket. It’s what’s in my right pocket at all times. If it’s not there, I feel naked. It makes me wonder what on Earth the right pocket was designed for before cell phones. Keys go in the left, and the wallet goes in my back right pocket…maybe the front right pocket was vestigial before the cell phone, like the back left pocket is today? (Poor, lonely, left butt cheek pocket) Maybe we’ve given the right pocket new purpose. A new lease on life. Maybe it can finally experience American wealth creation.

Anyway, I crushed it, and I didn’t even realize what I’d done until some time later, when I wanted to lovingly check those texts I didn’t really understand how to respond to (I’m sure most of them were from girls complimenting me on my ping-pong diving skills). So I pulled out my phone, and to my horror, the screen was completely busted.

But, I was raised with a Depression-era mentality, and it wasn’t broken: it was just unique. I could still make phone calls with this device, and that was the point, was it not? So, rather than investing in a new one, I decided that this was just how my phone was now. It was scarred, loved. It had lived. It had personality.

It really did. The screen was broken in the most beautiful way: a kaleidoscope of jagged colors, like technological tie dye. I dare say I never truly loved the phone (or anything else) until this moment. Suddenly, it came alive, a peacock in the twilight of its youth. I knew we were gonna be okay. We were gonna live a long, happy life together, more permanent than the tryst I’d had with Tina the basketball, who was wasting away somewhere in the garage. This was the beginning of true love.

I immediately began constructing a little tie-dye phone book to match the phone’s new patina (a phone book…how quaint!) I figured I’d just do it the old fashioned way, flipping through the alphabet in my book when I needed to call all those girls lining up to go out with the ping pong champion (“I heard he’s just really, truly marvelous!”). I’d stand out this way. I’d be cool. I’d get all the girls (Exhibit C).

I think I got about one name jotted down before I tossed the idea, and went with the far more glamorous (and rogue) activity of simply answering my phone every time it rang, without knowing (or caring) who was calling. I figured it would be a great way to get over social anxiety. I always answered the phone with “How’s it going?” because I figured it would be rude not to ask, and I’d rather know how the person on the other end of the line was doing than who exactly they were (again, character precedes make and model).

I still do this because I can’t form new habits.

Anyway, our techno-romance was doomed to fail, and the whole thing with Murphy died just as steamily as it began. I was going to get in a hot tub one day when I (smartly) remembered to remove my phone from my swim trunks before I got in.

This was important because, only a few months prior, I had witnessed a tragedy: someone dove into a pool with a cell phone in their pocket. You have to remember, back then, we couldn’t ever really remember the phone was there. Now the flesh on my leg tingles with phantom vibrations even when my cell phone isn’t in my pocket. That’s how ingrained the whole cell phone culture has become. Worse for this poor, tragic, diving boy was the fact that we were making him dive into the pool while mimicking a walrus. I can’t remember why (he must have lost a heinous high school bet), I only remember him making terrific walrus noises and clapping his hands in front of him, tumbling into the water, and emerging screaming epitaphs and throwing his dead cell phone at us.

Whoops.

With this walrus phone diving incident fresh in my mind, I placed the phone on a tabletop and hopped into the tub.

(Because, ladies, I’m a genius)

Cue completely spontaneous rainstorm, and my poor phone gets drenched.

I rushed it inside, gave it CPR, mouth to mouth, those crazy, jagged lights blinking on and off. I tried to make a phone call, and I remember it spurting water out of the speakers like a dying fish (I literally remember that, but I’m not sure how that physically could have happened). It rumbled across the table, spitting up water, squealing and blurping and dying.

The phone call was to my future girlfriend. I had her on speaker, but it was all garbled and distorted. She slowly faded out, as did the lights on the phone. When we finally got together, our relationship lasted about a month. It was all in the cards that day, if only I had been paying attention.

Cell phone one: down.

RIP cell phone one.

Now, onto cell phone two. Rebound phone. I was suspicious of it at first, unsure how it could ever replace Murphy.

It boasted all these fancy tricks: it could take pictures, it could play music, it could connect (gasp!) to the Internet. It could send and receive texts (I could finally do it right!). It had this crazy thing called T9, where it would finish your words for you (how could it possibly know what I was thinking?). It carried with it the sweet promise of future arthritis in my thumbs.

People before us had 8-tracks, or Walkmen, or bell-bottoms, or Woodstock. We had cell phones. I’m okay with it.

All of that, I thought, was lipstick on a pig. But God, what a lovely pig it turned out to be. As of 2014, that second phone is still my favorite. I have fond memories with that phone: long afternoons, the sun setting into longer nights, me on my phone, becoming that terrible social stereotype of Guy Texting On Phone Even Though He’s Hanging Out With People In Real Life. That’s what that phone did for me. I would rather be texting with anyone at all on that phone than talking to you in real life. I’d enjoy our time together more if we just went into separate rooms and texted each other, rather than talk face to face. I liked everyone more on my little cell phone screen.

That’s how much I loved that second phone.

I could take pictures with it! God, what a revelation. I still have all the pictures from that time period. We’re talking senior year of high school. All of those pictures are like little pixelated miracles from a time in my life I romanticize endlessly, and the phone rode shotgun with me through it all.

I have pictures of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osbourne in concert from that phone (like little bloppy, pixelated, PlayStation 1 blobs with worse resolution than a bunny-eared tube TV, but they’re special nevertheless). I realize, because of that phone, that I was all hair at that time in my life. I was like Cousin It: the pixels basically remove my face in favor of my all-encompassing mass of hair. There are pictures with marvelous, radiating people, all smiles, standing next to me, this human hump of hair, and that’s amazing to me. It’s like being Guns ‘N Roses’ Slash, but only his hair: no guitar skills, no top hat, no human body at all. Just hair. I don’t mind it. It’s a fever dream of some kind. Thanks to that phone, my already nostalgic youth is even more metal.

That phone was with me for new relationships, for prom, for parties. For the dewy, honeysuckle heartbreak that burns out your teenage years, all (let’s face it) intruded upon rudely by the advent of new technology. Not as cool as a muscle car, maybe. Not as classic, but also not as cheesy, as some of the artifacts that define different generations. People before us had 8-tracks, or Walkmen, or bell-bottoms, or Woodstock. We had cell phones. I’m okay with it.

That phone took me all the way through college, when I was keeping it together with tape and love and stubborn nostalgia. I even had a Batman Band-Aid on it before the end, holding the battery in. It never really died, you understand. I eventually decided I had to let it go: that my holding onto it was selfish. I think it’s happier now, and it was time for me to take the next step.

For whatever reason, I stepped into a big, black, bulky thing with a built-in keyboard. This, for me (cell phone three), was a gargantuan leap forward, but for most of the world it was a step backwards. Phones were getting slicker and thinner; touch screens were the wave of the future. Most people already had smart phones with lightning fast Internet connections, playing games I’d never heard of, video chatting each other, making Academy Award-winning films on their phones (okay, so some of this is a little bit of a stretch, but that’s how it felt).

“I just want to send e-mails,” I said, thinking it sounded mature, claiming I got the phone for the built-in keyboard.

Really, I did it because I was in grief over my last phone. The love of my life. How could I ever begin again?

Almost immediately, the new phone and I had problems. It would lag and freeze and turn off at inopportune times.

I began a really strange habit of photographing odd graffiti I found in bathroom stalls at this point in my life. It was going to be for an installation piece I was planning on doing, or a coffee table book, about the “Signs of Our Times,” and it was going to be chock full of all the bizarre and outrageous confessions people only feel comfortable leaving in bathroom stalls (or YouTube comment sections, the bathroom stalls of the internet). I still think it’s a great idea, but the phone is long since dead and it took all of those incredible pictures with it.

Anyway, the phone would do this devious thing that was a million times worse than the dreaded butt dial (can you remember a time before the dreaded butt dial? Are we past it now? My smartphone never does that. Maybe that, too, is a relic of the past). It would butt-picture-text, which is the act of randomly sending pictures to people on your contact list while your phone is in your pocket.

Meaning an odd mountain of people would receive pictures of the insane, often times completely obscene graffiti I had photographed during my journey. There was one picture of a bathroom stall covered in graffiti about ghosts (swear to God) that I accidentally butt-picture-texted to my girlfriend at least twelve times in a row while she was driving alone through the dark back roads of Haymarket, Virginia. The graffiti said, “Look behind you,” or something terrible. She called me, freaking out, wondering why I would do such a heinous thing.

“Why do you keep sending me pictures of this creepy haunted bathroom stall?”

Only it wasn’t me. It was my dreaded third phone, perhaps haunted itself by the Day-Glo memories of my last phone.

This was getting out of hand.

My girlfriend was far from the only one to receive such awful, scary messages. A boom operator on a film shoot I was working on got her share as well: unfortunate, histrionic chicken scratches about politicians that are too heinous for me to repeat here (it would have made a great coffee table book, though: a true American original). I called her up immediately, apologizing, blaming it on my cursed phone.

I knew then that something had to be done about the phone. It was driving a wedge between me and the people I cared about, insane in its jealousy, committed to scaring everyone off with frightening pictures. It had to stop. But divorce was out of the question. I just had to wait for it to slip up…

And slip up it did, not too long after.

I awoke one morning to the cell phone’s alarm going off and, naturally, I decided to hit the snooze button.

Big mistake.

Because the beast froze in snooze mode. I took the battery out, I turned it off and on, I did everything I could, but the alarm continued to go off every five minutes, for the next several hours.

The loudest, most heinous, most obnoxious alarm noise you’ve ever heard.

I couldn’t take it any more.

Bereaved and nearly out of my mind, I took it to the store, where the guys in the back puzzled over what the problem might be. I could hear it screeching out for me to wake up every five minutes from the back of the store. I listened to it lose its damn mind, and there was nothing I could do about it.

So, finally, they came out front. They couldn’t save it, they told me. Not even the pictures.

I felt…relieved? A weight had been lifted, and I went home with something new.

A smart phone, finally (it was time for an upgrade too, they happily informed me…what a miracle!)

It’s sitting beside me now. Quiet and delightful, with incredible pixel resolution and a camera that puts my beloved second phone to shame.

It’s also covered in fingerprints.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, we now live in the age of Fingerprint Smudges (You’re welcome, Science: when archeologists from the future dig up our calcified bones, still clutching our smart phones, they’ll have a name for this time period). In this era, everything’s all smudged, all over the place, all the time. Moist paws clawing across plastic. That’s America, circa 2014, some ten years after this story began.

Computer monitors have touch screens, and cell phones are just little tickle-me computers (Little Screen, Big Thumb Prints is the name of my new band).

Seriously, every gadget I own looks like I just sneezed all over my hands, and then just started touching everything.

As an Obsessive Compulsive American Male (my solo artist name), it’s a little much. All grease, all the time.

But not on a toilet flusher, you’ll notice: Those are all automated now (meaning they’ll sometimes continually flush while you’re trying to push out a particularly stubborn family of food, which is a new and unique level of frustration). The only thing better than touching it yourself is not having to touch it at all, which is fair: germs are killers.

Automated hand sanitizer dumpers are the way of the future: no germs, no touch, no grease. Only then your hands are dried out gravel pits in need of a healthy dollop of moisturizer, and there’s the rub: your newly greasy (albeit clean) digits are now leaving their presence on electronic gizmos all over.

This used to be gross. If you rubbed your greasy mitts on my brand new, electronic, yuppie toy, I had a license to go Patrick Bateman on you. Now, leaving a slug trail is only natural. What’re you supposed to do? We’re all getting handsy with our gadgets. We’re eating massively expensive meals with our fingers.

I’m not saying it’s rude, per sé. I’m just saying it’s strange. It’s a strange behavior to encourage. You’re telling little Johnny to use his fork and knife when he knows damn well it’d be more cutting edge to just use his fingers. Getting him off the phone at dinner is hard enough. Getting him to pick up a spoon after fondling his phone all night seems downright counter intuitive.

If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of smart phones. I feel like it’s a hit of vacuous crack that’s just waiting in my pocket, like a time sucking bomb that could go off at any second.

I don’t like turning it on, and forgetting the camera is on and flipped in my direction. Lord, what a surprise: when my ghastly mug fills up the screen, staring back at me from inside the palm of my hand, while the camera gazes up at me from crotch-level. So candid. No smiles, just mounds of neck rolls. I look pensive, disgusting, all stubble and sleepless eyes, like I just emerged from a toilet inside a dumpster. It’s worse than a mug shot: it’s like a prison documentary, where nobody’s bathed, and everyone’s pores stretch across their skin like endless pock marks covering the surface of the moon.

Better crane my neck and take a picture from the ceiling, so I can remember what I really look like.

That’s HD. You have to slather yourself in make-up in order to seem even remotely healthy. Meanwhile, that stuff clogs up your pours and starts producing grease, and then you smear that grease all over your cellphone with your fingers.

I’m saying it doesn’t seem clean, or healthy, or fun, or…wait. Hold on.

Excuse me while I check my phone.

Because, golly-gee poop, what if someone just commented on any of my social media updates?

I’m addicted. I can’t help it.

I’ve got a whole ocean of ‘em out there, some in different names, some I’ve forgotten about, some that were started on e-mail accounts I no longer use (nor can I remember the passwords for), and now will never close, like a yawning black hole ripping its way through the endless fabric of the internet.

I hope somebody’s thinking about me.

I hope somebody’s thinking about me even as I’m sitting at a table with five friends, involved in some sort of a conversation I used to be part of but just totally zoned out from because I want to track a bundle of Blu-Rays I just bought from Amazon.com.

What’s wrong with me? And now the screen’s all gummed up from my filthy hands.

This is getting out of hand! Give me the old pixelated phone of my youth, I say! Things were simpler then. More comfortable, more relaxed. Politicians were honest. Kids respected their elders.

I’m becoming an old fogey, as technology accelerates at a breakneck pace.

The story I’ve just told already seems like ancient history. When we’re making our own cell phones with 3D printers, and interacting with each other exclusively through Oculus Rift, it’ll seem especially dusty (that’s sometime next year, for those of you playing along at home).

Look for me once you step inside the Rift.

I’ll be the pixelated mass of hair, shuddering in the corner, weeping over my lost love: a piece of technology that farted across the radar in the summer of 2006, and died with a Batman Band-Aid holding its butt in place.

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1 Comment

  1. Sean Collins-Smith

    everything this guy writes is awesome!

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