09 March 2013


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?


  1. Dear Ms. Zelvin: Better yet, how about not letting passengers on the bus until cell phones are shut off and put away. Neither plan would pass muster, though, since they probably violate 1st Amendment rights. The thing I have never been able to figure out is how do these "cellphonistas" find so many other idiots who have nothing better to do than yap on the phone all day. Not only that, they're becoming a menace to society in that the rest of us have to constantly be on alert so as not to run over them as they step into traffic oblivious to what's going on around them. Hey, just thought of something. Maybe natural selection will solve everything in the end. Yours truly, Toe.

  2. BRAVO, Elizabeth! I think you’re right — to the back of the bus, behind a sound-proof divider! Institute “Cell and Non-Cell” seating, like we used to have “smoking and non-smoking” sections in a plane.

    “ … couples walking down the street, each relating to whoever’s talking in his or her ear rather than to each other.” I heard you shrinks call this: being an “absent presence”. Is that true?


  3. My favorite cellphonista is a young man who was so busy texting he walked into my parked car. He glanced up, shrugged, and went on. My second favorite is the one who, talking and driving at the same time, almost ran me down a few years back up at SDSU and didn't blink. I went into class, told them the story, and promised to flunk said student. Since I didn't identify the student, almost everyone in the class went rigid with fear.
    I agree. To the back of the bus with them, and also to little cubicles where they can sit hunched in darkness as long as they can stand it.

  4. At the risk of sounding like a "good old days" old fogey, I would love to wake up tomorrow and find that all cell phones have disappeared. I don't how our generation survived without them. Actually we did quite well. We actually talked to one another without a phone in our ear. How quaint!
    c u later.

  5. Good article, Elizabeth; it appears you've really struck a nerve with this one. It is very annoying.

    Toe, I'm afraid modern society has taken so many steps to protect people from their own actions that natural selection is almost moot.

  6. A constitutional amendment banning cellphones is needed.
    Or a law: no walking while texting, and no making left hand turns while holding a cellphone to the ear with the right hand.

    A great post.

  7. A message to the users of cell phones in public (especially in restaurants):

    You're lucky they're wireless. If they had cords I'd have something to strangle you with.

  8. Liz, I grew so irritated with cell phones that I got rid of mine in December. Yesterday, Dixon wrote about daydreaming and mentally acting out scenes and conversations. That's impossible when the popularity of cell phones makes friends (and acquaintances)call multiple times every day. Only problem with being cell-less is that when I do rarely need one, there are absolutely NO pay phones left!

  9. Fran, I have never owned a cell phone, and have the same problem. No pay phones. Along with slide rules, typewriters and carbon paper, they have become museum pieces. I don't know how much longer I can hold out.

  10. I must admit that I love my iPhone--but I'm not what I've been calling a cellphonista, because I don't use it while walking or driving, in the midst of a captive audience (eg on line at the post office), or in lieu of personal interactions when I'm actually in someone's f2f company. If my car breaks down, however, or if I'm unavoidably delayed on my way to an appointment, or if I have to drive to Boston or Washington but am waiting for an important email from my publisher or agent...well, there are plenty of circumstances in which I'm glad to have it. Also, I take videos of my granddaughters on it and will show them to you with pleasure (whether you want me to or not). And for myself, I never get tired of looking at them.

  11. This article cracked me up. Elizabeth said what a lot of people think! Get off the @#$%&* phone! But I suggest making the cellphonistas ride ON the back of the bus, maybe in one of those carriers like for bicycles.

    After being annoyed that they could never reach me, friends Steve and Sharon gave me a cell phone one Christmas, and I confess I use it regularly now, although I disabled texting and web surfing.

    But to give credit where due: I got my hair cut Thursday evening– friends are shocked, I know. I have cowlicks and the main haircuttress mentioned to her underlings she had to be careful how to cut so I wouldn't look like Alfalfa. I wondered if the girls knew who Alfalfa was and asked… and indeed, they knew about the Little Rascals. What a pleasant surprise they've survived so many generations.

  12. As the SleuthSayers psychologist, do you think it's possible that people with no lives use cell phones either in an effort to isolate themselves from others or trying to show others they really do have friends?

  13. No, I think they're addicts doing what addicts do: act compulsively, oblivious to the needs of others. They don't care what you think.


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