Climbing (Sort of) into the 21st Century

Jun 24, 2021 | 2019 Fall - Growing Older

By Jane Barnes

I got my first cellphone around the turn of the century: a silver shell phone, which I snapped shut with a flourish on the 14th-street bus. At first, I hung it from a homemade lanyard (a red satin ribbon, half-inch), but when I got used to it, I just carried it in my pocket like everyone else. I still kept my landline and my business number. My old letterhead shows me as residing in a commercial mailbox on Sixth Avenue, where I got my mail and packages.

I moved apartments about every nine months, so it made sense to have a locus operandi—if that’s even a thing. Deserting the shell phone, I went cell-less (and internet-less) for some time in the early oughts, though I used the shell to tell my Newark employers that I had escaped 9/11 (I was nearby in the No. 6 train), and to tell program friends of icky “actions” I was about to take: like getting my bank balance, or telling my landlady I’d be a few days late. First, I lived in Spanish Harlem in an actual office, which had—for me—no internet or TV. I was big on the radio and it wasn’t until ’04 that I got a TV—it came with my SRO [single-room occupancy]—and therefore never saw much video of the tragedy. Seeing it in living color was a horror. In this same SRO, I had the internet and emailed dozens and dozens of folks. And because I type 99 WPM I probably told them TMI every hour or so.

Housing Court didn’t like my illegal sublet there and kicked me out. I gradually wound up on the street once my friends gave out. In the shelter we had 24/7 computers and the internet, so I wrote a hundred poems about being homeless and reconnected with my iPhone-waving pal, Gordon. After that I went to a woman’s shelter in Noho—immaculate, welcoming, and fairly pleasant. Did I have a phone? I got my whole social security check and food stamps, and managed to save up for a MacBook Pro, which cost me $1200. I got a case and was back in business. I got wifi at a chic little internet coffeehouse, tapped away like a From there I moved to the Bronx, got Netflix (the movies came in the mail), and emailed up a storm. A slight interruption by a week-long coma, and after three nursing homes, with and without computers, I moved to a psych ward and thence to an assisted living rez [residence] on, of all rural places, Staten Island. My friend Kathy gave me a TV, a printer, chocolates from Ghiradelli in San Francisco (she lived in Oakland, across the bay) and somehow I signed up for a cellphone, the size of a graham cracker, which did not flip. It was a black little thing, and I never could get online. It took calls and sent them, and that was it. There was a calendar and a list feature, which I used for a while.

Meanwhile, all my friends had iPhones. They held up their shiny phones (pink or gold or black) and talked into the end of that glossy flat piece of jewelry. They lightly touched here and there, and things happened. One of the things was photos. Photos of nephews and nieces, the grandparents, the trip in Florida, their new boyfriend or girlfriend. I was fond of this phone, though it never showed me where I or anyone else lived. It could not tell me how soon the bus would arrive. I looked up phone numbers in an outdated phone book that was the size of a young adult novel. I didn’t know locations, and I had no Siri to give me answers to questions like “give me a list of bisexual literary magazines.” Or: “Are microwaves bad for you?” For these complex answers I turned to … reference books. I had almanacs, a thesaurus, how-to books, fact books, and all kinds of books that in the 21st century most people have never seen.

I paid $6 for not enough minutes, so I got charged a fee and eventually it came out of my debit card, and some months went as high as $25. Finally, they put me on a reasonable plan of $18 a month and while my cohorts paid $40 or $50 per line, I had low rate and low function combined. How 20th century. I’ve had my new phone for a week now. I’ve taken 20 photos of my apartment: it’s as pretty as it is to my actual eye. I’ve taken selfies, the first one by mistake at 2 AM when I was makeup-less and weary and oh, my God, I don’t know that old lady. Ten more selfies followed today. My lipliner was inexact, another one cut off my head, and none of them made me look 52.

I still haven’t done the thing that gives you apps. And I forget how to message people. The first night my right hand (I hold it with my dominant left hand) felt like a vulture’s claw, until I realized that my fingers are round, and the tap must come from the middle of the curve. Before each key struck a loud squeak; now it’s a little rustle of “paper,” and some features require a lustier tap while others don’t respond (sounds like sex) unless I am gentle.

I hold my phone up like a graham cracker and talk into the end. The little button on the right turns the whole thing off. The ones on the other side are louder and softer. At the bottom is a socket for the charger or to hook it up to the computer (for I don’t know what yet). And the one button at the bottom is the home button, and a throat-clearer between actions. Siri sends me things from the web: microwaves are basically safe, Colette wrote 40 books all in French, and if I double my income this 21st century year, it will be because I’ve got a phone like everyone else and am ready for business. For romance too. That has to do with Facetime, I guess, in which I will be thoroughly made up or I won’t intentionally turn it on.

I suppose there are various technological and electronic ways to flirt, connect, and even disengage. My friends say, “He texted me, so I texted back, and then he left but came back, and he’d sent some pictures of his new car.” I thought the man or woman who would date me wouldn’t know of my murky cell phone past, and would think I was just another boring woman with an iPhone 7 in a pink case, with a seagull calling for me to answer, and me hitting the little symbol that means let-it-go-to-voicemail.

Oh, wait: is that your cell’s Wagnerian waltz ringtone or mine? I’m dying for a certain call, and I just found out where they live and ordered a pretty Prime sweater in case I see them at the library. Not at a mall. (I never go to malls.) He’s on Facebook, unlike me, since I don’t want the Russians to try and get me to catch the measles. I had them back in 1947 when phones were black, and if you didn’t answer, they eventually just hung up.

P.S. Just checked my usage of my iPhone 7 and I’m six hours over the average. Just made my 110th “friend”—some of them are famous and don’t know me—checked the “likes” on my page, where I’m putting poems (though how do you put poems already input somewhere into that space automatically? Siri answered but I didn’t get it. Better call Gordon [generation X, etc.] who’ll know.) Have a grocery list, a color-coded schedule, a place to dump links I want, but don’t know where to put. And I check my Gmails, weed the dumb ones out, hear a honk on my cell—my car is outside waiting. A friend is having a hard day. I give her a resounding text, and she sends back red valentines. Now check my bank, and a novelists’ group I’ve joined. 12 people have great advice for me. I give some to the others. Being blocked, needing a secondary character (I offer me—75, bi, poet, NYC). . . . It goes on and on. Wait. What’s on TV at this very hour? Do I want to watch MSNBC live on my phone—when it’s right on my crib-bed-sized smart TV? I have a tone that wakes me up; refuse to keep it next to my bed. Wrote to a possible publisher of my books. Friended more fancy writers and 20 publishers. Here I am not even in the room but on my MacBook Pro, watching the smart TV, turned the ringer off (Ha! I got you), and then there’s the other four pages of apps, that do everything but change my lingerie.

Bring up that Grammerly app, and it will correct everything amusing about your fabulous diction. OK, enough out of me. Click shut. Move that little button to red. Shut up, world! [emoji of a face frowning].

Jane Barnes is in NYC finishing a third poetry collection, “Deceptive Cadence: Poems 2007-2017,” and hanging on MSNBC Rachel Maddow’s every word.

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