Unexpectedly cut off from phone, fax and Internet, this writer discovers he rather liked it. By Matthew Mallon
In February 27, 1975, a fire of unknown origin struck one of New York Telephone’s major switching stations in lower Manhattan, “causing the worst service disaster ever suffered by a single Bell operating company,” according to a company history. Until service was restored, 170,000 area phones went dead, and some 300,000 New Yorkers were “deprived of a vital electronic part of the urban environment,” as reported by Time magazine later that spring.
For most of them, especially local businesses, it was a catastrophe: “Florists cut off from Florists’ Transworld Delivery complained that they could no longer say it with flowers; with their phones dead, funeral parlors in the area reported that business was ‘dying.’ ” Enterprising junkies swarmed local pharmacies with fake prescriptions that couldn’t be checked by phone. There were fears for public safety; the swift breakdown of social order was predicted by concerned community leaders and liquor store owners.
The phone company quickly brought in pre-historic, suitcase-sized mobile units and restored service to the three hospitals, 10 fire houses and two police precinct stations in the silent zone. Three hundred and seventy nine temporary pay phones were set up in the 300-square- block area, while extra police cars cruised with their lights flashing; anyone with an emergency message could flag them down and use their radios.
Civilization prevailed. Said Time: “New Yorkers volunteered to help sick or elderly neighbors, and even waited in line to place calls for them at one of the temporary pay phones […] Editor Lyla Aubry compared the phone-out to ‘the electric power blackout of 1965: it made us feel closer together.’
“As always, there were some Manhattanites who found a modicum of merit in phonelessness. ‘No dance lesson salesmen, no bill collectors, no heavy breathers,’ said Gidon Gottlieb, professor of law at New York University. ‘Silence, it’s wonderful.’ ”
Gidon, my brother, over a more than 30-year-old connection, I hear you. In the summer of 2004, in a fit of pique over increasingly horrible customer service from my local providers, I cancelled my landline phone service (I’d long ago stopped using a cellphone.) I also, for good measure, stopped my Internet connection and dropped my cable TV. Plus, by coincidence, at almost exactly the same time, my apartment buzzer ceased to function. The silence, it was wonderful.
I wasn’t completely without connection to the outside world. If you stood in the alley outside my apartment, for instance, and yelled my name or threw pebbles at my window, I could usually hear you. If I wasn’t playing music too loudly. And besides, as I explained over and over and over again to my friends and relations, I was always available at work. If you wanted me, just call me between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at my work number. Sure, I rarely actually answered, but I almost always checked my voicemail. If I wanted to call someone after work, I just went down the street to a payphone at the local Safeway and dropped a quarter in the slot.
I know, I know. I sound like a crank, especially in this day and age, when people would get cellphones for their pets if they could. And it’s entirely possible that during this period I was verging on tinfoil hat territory. My reasons for cutting off my phone service, for instance, were more complicated than mere consumer angst. They had a lot to do with my job at the time, and perhaps most of all, with the state of my mental health.
You see, I had stumbled, entirely by accident, into one of those media jobs–editing a glossy monthly city magazine–perfect for a certain kind of extrovert. It was, for the right person, a fantastic job, one of the best in Western Canadian media, I was repeatedly told. It gave you tons of access to the city’s leaders, movers and shakers, a constant stream of high-end events and parties with lashings of free food and alcohol, a constant stream of people who wanted your ear, for one reason or another–perhaps because of something you’d published recently, or hadn’t, or maybe they wanted you to write about them, or a friend, or a friend’s sister who was an actress or had a really hot new restaurant. It was a big part of my job description to schmooze, to work the room, and when not out, to work the phones.
Trouble is, I’m a typical writer: introverted, mostly, if prone to occasional flashes of extroversion that make me cringe upon recollection. I like to watch, and tinker with words, and gossip in the corner. Still, I did my best to fulfill the ambassadorial part of the role, attended as many events as I could stomach, and schmoozed heroically, aided greatly by the free alcohol. I met a lot of fascinating people and, for a while, had a lot of fun. Good times, good times, even if some are a little hazy or cringe-inducing in retrospect.
But by the summer of 2004, I was pretty much at the end of my rope, schmooze-wise. I’d been to all the parties a hundred times over, heard all the good gossip and a lot of the bad, eaten far too many canapes and was relying much too heavily on the free merlot to get me through the evenings. I began to tell my friends, “I think I have a fixed number of conversations I can have in a day. After 12, I can’t talk anymore. To anyone.” This was often said by way of apology for having avoided their phone calls for months. At my office I stopped picking up the phone when it rang, unless it was from someone I needed to talk to right that second. I let every other call go through to voicemail, and then raced through the voicemails every couple of hours, ruthlessly deleting any not deemed worthy of immediate action. As for the daily flood of e-mail? Let’s not even talk about it. Still, I seemed to spend most of my day talking, cajoling, dealing with this crisis or that–many probably caused by my increasing elusiveness. In my head, I was starting to sound like one of the adults in those old Peanuts cartoons: mwha-mwha-mwha-mwha.
My home phone was even more of an enemy, a lethal alarm clock in the corner of the living room. I had none of Gidon Gottlieb’s dance lesson salesmen, but I had the bill collectors, and their evil twins the telephone marketers, in spades–and worse, much worse, guilt-inducing calls from friends who wondered where I was and why I hadn’t shown up at their birthday party, or from baffled women I’d briefly dated and then abruptly disappeared on. Out for dinner with the science fiction author William Gibson, inventor of cyberpunk and reluctant futurist, I moaned about my increasing urge to become a telecommunicative non-entity, a cyber-invisible, to disappear from our increasingly, neurotically connected world. “I think that’s already happening with a certain class of people,” he said. “There are certain citizens who are going to want to be electronically invisible, who are going to pay big money to get off the grid and stay off the grid, to not come up when you Google them.” The truly rich and powerful, as any conspiracy theorist will tell you, have always preferred a low profile. But, wacky and anti-social as I was, I was not becoming a member of the Illuminati. I was just part of a fairly predictable trend in this new era of constant electronic connectivity: over-mediated individuals who wanted to unplug. There are websites–oh, the irony–devoted to going low-tech, to replacing your Blackberry with a Moleskin notebook, an object as fetishized in its way as the upcoming iPhone. There are lifestyle gurus, even, who will tell you how to unplug the phone and turn off the computer and give yourself time to recharge, for a small lecture fee or the price of their newest book. I didn’t need a guru. I just wanted to go live in the woods and grow a big huge f..k-off beard.
I probably should have just gone on a beard-growing sabbatical or something. After all, compared with my teenage niece, for instance, my social life wasn’t really that complicated. Some exes, some aggrieved friends, annoying drudges from call centres. And with inventions such as call display and off buttons, telephones have actually become less demonically needy instruments. But nonetheless, when I went away for a week’s holiday and came home to find my phone service temporarily suspended because I was late with a payment, I spent a couple of days raging impotently at the telephone company before I realized something: the silence! It was magical! I used to wonder why I slept so well in hotel rooms whenever I left town; on that no-phone weekend I realized it was because I was somewhere no one knew how to get a hold of me. And so my disconnection began. It lasted for a little over a year and a half.
Mostly, it was glorious. When I walked into my apartment, I entered almost complete, blessed isolation, a sanctuary where my blood pressure dropped as soon as the door closed behind me. Extended periods of isolation were a novelty to me. I’d grown up in a mid-sized, middle-class family, been sent to a boarding school where I dormed with several other boys, spent my early 20s living with various bong-happy roommates and then gone back to back into a series of long-term relationships that had culminated in a divorce a few years previous.
I was seeing someone, in an increasingly desultory fashion, when I pulled all the plugs. We’d been dating for a few months, but even before the great Cut-Off of ’04, we’d been winding it down, hanging out only on weekends, when she’d show up with a cute little suitcase full of supplies. My newfound lack of a phone killed things off within weeks. It was a relief to both of us, I think. (I was, during this time, almost certainly the living definition of a toxic bachelor.)
What did I do? I read a lot, or should I say, even more. My social life still existed but became a lot more pre-arranged. If my weekend plans hadn’t been nailed down by Friday afternoon, they didn’t happen, which was fine by over-socialized me at that point. I also had a regular Saturday afternoon coffee date with a small group of friends at a busy central cafe. I had a routine. If I felt myself going absolutely stir-crazy, off I went to the Safeway payphone–the one least used by my local crack and meth dealers–to plaintively ring up a pal.
What did I find out? Well, even my most eccentric, bohemian friends raised their hairy eyebrows at me when they discovered my phonelessness. Everybody has a phone, for chrissakes. And if you don’t, you’re either insane, criminal or part of a social problem. Seriously. “Phonelessness is a social policy problem that needs to be addressed by the federal government,” according to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. It’s a major issue both in Canada and in low-income areas of the United States, where most people without phones are in big trouble–off the grid, but not in a good way. They have no way to access social, educational or health services.
Me too, but by choice. “What if you fell down in the shower or something?” a friend shrieked when she finally got through to me at work. Good point. I guess I’d just have to stoically bite my lip and die, or crawl painfully over to my neighbours. Still, I considered it a worthwhile trade-off. (For anyone I met under the age of 30, phonelessness seemed bizarre, sure, but the lack of an Internet connection? Was I totally insane? One girl claimed that she felt an anxiety attack coming on just thinking about it.) I tried to research other people who’d willingly gone phone-free. I found a few but they mostly fit a very narrow profile: bat-s..t crazy.
Eventually, my friends began to tire of the effort involved in tracking me down. A couple of promising relationships never got off the ground–one woman told me later that when I gave her my work number and claimed not to have a home phone she was certain I was lying. I found myself more and more frequently walking into my apartment and thinking, Huh, there’s nothing going on in here and it’s kind of depressing. Meanwhile my phonelessness did not go unnoticed at my workplace, and was added to the long list of eccentricities they no longer found so charming. Plus I was getting tired of walking to the Safeway payphone and waiting for Scabby Crack Dealer #72 to stop spitting into the receiver.
And then, about a year and a half into my disconnection I met someone, started dating, and, to my surprise, fell in love. It began to seem increasingly churlish to ask her to stand in the alley and yell my name or throw rocks when she came over to visit. And when I inevitably got fired by the new publisher from my schmoozey editor job, a bunch of writers took me out for dinner and gave me a farewell gift: a phone.
So now I’m back on the grid. I’ve got a cell and a high-speed Internet connection. I even write about the Internet. (Still no cable TV, though. That’s for suckers.) A couple of weeks ago, my cellphone service got cut off again–entirely my fault this time–over the weekend. My girlfriend was overseas. I was isolated once more, back in the silent submarine that was my apartment, trudging down to the London Drugs–the Safeway payphone is gone now– with a calling card to check in with her. It was like old times again.