I'm not even halfway to 40 yet and I'm already becoming a cranky old man. That's the dark side of precocity. At five, it's cute. In your thirties, it's premature aging.
My first and only cell phone, an ancient Motorola Star Tac, passed away quietly on Sunday morning after a long life plagued with illnesses and abnormalities. I hated it. It had lousy reception and a dodgy LCD display. It kept a battery charge for about as long as a second-rate cowboy keeps his seat on the back of an angry bull. It combined the toughness of a Fabergé egg with the aesthetics of a dung beetle.
After buying it, every time I'd hear news of layoffs at Motorola, which is a local company, I'd think, "Good. Serves you right."
I might have mourned the demise of Ugly Phone a bit more if I'd had any clue how things have changed in the past three years. Apparently, a telephone is no longer a small appliance. It is now a fashion statement. A mobile office. An entertainment center. A status symbol. And possibly a sex toy, given the way the guy at the Verizon store was quivering as he showed me what was for sale.
He positively bounced from model to model, flipping them open and fondling them. Camera phones, phones with Global Positioning capabilities, phones that would allow me to play violent computer games and catch up on "Dawson's Creek," phones that would allow me to select any song from the oeuvre of 50 Cent as my personal ring tone.
He was visibly deflated when I didn't join in the orgy of phone love.
"I don't want a phone with a camera," I said. "I have a camera."
"But you probably don't always have it with you," he said.
"I'm more likely to leave the phone at home than my camera," I said.
He got that "does-not-compute" look on his face.
"And I don't need the games, either," I said. "I don't play computer games."
"But hey, man, what do you do when you're waiting for the subway?" he said.
"I knit," I said.
"Okay, man, that's cool, that's cool, no games," he said, as I helped him up off the floor.
"And I want a phone that just rings. I don't want it to play music. I just want it to ring. Just ring, ring, ring. It could beep, maybe. But no music."
He was still smiling broadly, but I think he was wondering whether I might be dangerous or deranged.
"So, okay. No camera, no games, and you don't want it to play music."
"Nope. I just want a phone. I want to call people and get calls, but I don't need to hear from Gladys Knight and the Pips every time my mother wants to chat."
"Gladys? And the what?"
"Never mind. What do you have that just acts like a phone, and not a Chuck E. Cheese?"
He had completely ceased to vibrate. He pointed to one small, unassuming phone in the corner. It looked like a geek phone, a phone that never gets invited to cool parties, a phone that would rather stay inside and read than go play baseball. I felt a kinship with this phone.
"This is the simplest phone we got," he said. "It, um, doesn't do much. It has a color display. They all have color displays now, is that okay?"
"That's fine," I said. "Charge it up and let's go."
Het set it up for me, sighing and looking a little glum. But he got his own back. I stuck the thing in my pocket and forgot about it until I was halfway home on the subway, sitting the middle of the usual comatose cubicle victims. A friend of mine called and suddenly, inside my pocket, an entire mariachi band began to play the "Mexican Hat Dance" in living stereo at full volume.
And I realized I hadn't figured out how to shut off the phone yet.