by Elizabeth Zelvin
What is cellphonismo? In my personal lexicon, it’s addiction to the narcissistic and compulsive use of cell phones in public. In New York City, cellphonistas are everywhere.
Here’s a typical incident.
I’m running along the road that winds through Central Park. One of the horse-drawn hansom cabs that only tourists ride in is clopping along beside me. Those tired old carriage horses clop faster than I run, but that’s another story. For the moment, I’m more or less keeping pace. In the cab is a tourist couple, and on the seats facing them are their daughters, or perhaps a daughter and a friend, girls of about thirteen.
“That’s Strawberry Fields on your right,” the driver says.
I’ve overheard many a hansom cab driver, and lately the muscular youths who pedal bicyclesque pedicabs too, give their spiels, and they almost never mention anyone but John Lennon—the Dakota, where he lived and in front of which he was shot to death, and Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden across the street in the park—and Simon and Garfunkel, whose concert on the Great Lawn drew half a million people. I was there, but to me, this is not history. I went to PS 164 in Queens with Simon and Garfunkel, and a high school classmate of mine was the lawyer who defended Lennon’s killer. Somebody had to do it, and it was a high profile case. But I digress.
Do today’s thirteen-year-olds know who Lennon and Simon and Garfunkel are? Or is that old-people stuff, like email? Anyhow, these two very young women didn’t even look up. Their heads were bent and their thumbs flying, texting their friends in Oshkosh or Peoria or wherever they were from.
I couldn’t stand it. I called out to the parents, who no doubt had paid a fortune in plane fare, hotel, restaurant meals, the carriage ride, and Broadway shows on this vacation for four, “You should have left the girls home! They’re on their cell phones!” Then I yelled to the girls, “Wake up! You’re in New York!” At that, they looked up, smiled vaguely—and hunched over their little screens again. If I had wanted to give them a real New York experience, I would have modified “cell phones” with the F word. But I refrained.
I know it’s an addiction. I’m a professional addiction specialist. I know addicts are in the grip of a compulsion and oblivious to the needs of others. But it still makes me nuts to see couples walking down the street, each relating to whoever’s talking in his or her ear rather than to each other. I’m still outraged when I see moms and dads ignoring their toddlers— even while they’re crossing the street—to text or take a call. And I’m always tempted to put my fingers in my ears and start singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” very loudly in the bus to drown out the intimate conversations these oblivious jerks make their fellow riders privy to: medical details, investment advice, marital breakdown. Cellphonistas have no boundaries. And in my experience, they seldom listen. Somehow it’s never the guy on the other end doing the talking.
I do have a modest proposal. It’s not quite up to the standard of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 suggestion that the impoverished Irish solve the dual problems of famine and excessive childbirth by eating their babies. But how about making the cellphonistas ride in the back of the bus?