I’m 21 and I’ve Never Owned A Cell Phone

Photo Courtesy of Erik Friedman

The phone rings and I wait for my friend to pick up. When she does, I let her know that I will be running a few minutes late. Midway through my rant about Montreal’s public transit system, “deposit 50¢ more to continue your call” appears on the screen. I tell her I’ll see her soon, place the phone on its hook, and exit the booth. The day is moody: grey but refusing to rain. I let myself think that if it were pouring, there would be a tall man in a dark trench coat waiting his turn to use the phone booth. We’d bump into each other on my way out. Later that day, I would reach into my pocket and find a note, slipped there by the mysterious gentleman. So the adventure would begin…

As it happens, I’m not a character in a Hitchcock film and I’ve never bumped into a man, tall or otherwise, concealed behind a trench coat as I’ve exited a phone booth. Nor are the booths I’ve been in the kind you see in the movies, shiny red or sleek black. They’re dirty and smell of urine and alcohol, with trash crowding the ground. But yes, I do use public telephones, and yes, they do still exist. Granted, as almost everyone has a cell phone nowadays, the very idea of a public telephone seems obsolete. But for the few of us who do not own a mobile device, the city’s network of payphones can be a life saver.

There it is, the appalling truth: I do not own a cell phone, and never have. No, I am not a grandma disguised in the body of a twenty-one year old. No, I do not fear or loathe technology. And yes, it was my choice. So flows the typical exchange I have with incredulous peers or new friends hoping to exchange numbers. I have learnt to reassure people that I am sane and healthy and that yes, I am aware that some years ago we were welcomed into the twenty-first century.

Yes, I do use public telephones, and yes, they do still exist

Let me clarify. I do not regard my decision to be phone-less as brave, and there certainly was nothing particularly conscientious about it. The only explanation I offer is that my parents told me if I wanted a phone, I should purchase one myself, and I chose to spend my money elsewhere. As time went on, I never felt the need to rectify the situation. Does not having a cell phone cause problems and inconveniences? Of course. Have I been late to rendezvous and not been able to inform my friends? Yes. Have I gotten lost before in unknown neighborhoods and relied on asking strangers how to find my way back to familiarity? More often than I care to admit.

But I am most struck by how I am constantly having to learn to be awkward, or more specifically, how to be okay with being awkward. You’ve been in the situation: you’re in a room full of people you don’t know, be it a bar or a departmental event, and the friend you came with had to leave you for “just a sec.” That second has turned into several minutes and he still hasn’t returned. The awareness that you stand alone grows and soon, you feel the desperate need to avoid eye contact.

Most of you lucky folks can quell this awkward self-awareness simply by pulling out your cell phone, and voila: instant avoidance technique. You no longer have to master the look that communicates both “My friend is coming any minute, I swear,” and “Don’t even think of taking the empty seat next to me.” You also have the added benefit of looking like you could be doing something important.

I am most struck with how I am constantly having to learn to be awkward

Now think of me. I am defenseless and my palms are already sweaty. What are my options? I could always pull out a book, but depending on the situation this would be even worse than sitting there with a stupid look on my face. The person who reads in a bar looks like a loner protagonist stepped out from some coming-of-age film… not exactly the vibe I strive for. I have occasionally resorted to sketching my unsuspecting neighbors on a spare bit of paper, but the number of times I’ve been caught in the act and received confused and affronted looks has discouraged me. Often, I am simply stuck trying not to catch too many glances, while also trying not to break my record of how long I can stare into my glass without looking up.

I am painting a dismal picture, but there are perks. For one, I have become an expert eavesdropper. The fragments of conversations I’ve picked up have often kept me thinking for weeks. There have also been the times when my unknowing model has caught me sketching the arch of their nose and instead of being offended, has engaged me in interesting conversation. And there are always the rare times when I have exchanged knowing glances with other watchers at the bar; a quick smile communicating that not only have we both been listening to the couple’s conversation two seats down, but we also agree that she could do much better than the bore she’s sitting with.

I am twenty-one and have never owned a cell phone, and despite the inconveniences and awkwardness, I’m in no hurry to change that. I know that for many it is a scary prospect to leave the house without your phone, so I thought I’d leave you with some pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned through experience. Hopefully, if and when the need arises, they may be of some use.

Most importantly, enjoy the freedom that comes with being completely unattached and unreachable

  1. People are much kinder than you might think. Walking into a shop and asking to use a phone (in the event that there is no public one around or you’ve run out of quarters) may not be conventional, but often yields results. People like to help out and if they think they’re saving you from the kind of ugly fate reserved for those without a cell, they are all the more generous. And don’t be too scared of strangers; the characters you meet will surprise you.
  1. If you’re in a situation where you fear the possibility of being approached by a stranger, but have nothing to occupy yourself with that makes you look unavailable for conversation, feign sleep or madness. Pretending to be mad may be uncomfortable, but it is certainly effective.
  1. Elderly ladies will love you when you tell them you don’t have a phone. They are willing to help you out, offer you advice and regale you with their stories. I have made friends this way, and this is no small thing.
  1. Most importantly, enjoy the freedom that comes with being completely unattached and unreachable. You don’t have to respond to texts from work, your project partner, or your mom. Revel in the knowledge that you can truly enjoy your own company and whomever else you meet along your way.  


  • Jay says:

    I have never owned a cell phone in my life. I’m 50 now. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  • Janis says:

    I know that sense of freedom, along with the incredulous looks from people. I tell them I’m a Luddite and let them ponder on that…

    I can count on one hand the number of times I direly needed a cell and there wasn’t anyone around. Yet somehow I survived.

    Do I miss some cool things that are only accessible by cell? Sure, but nothing earth shattering. Nothing strong enough for me to spend my money on a cell phone. I hear you! (and I have a job that seemingly screams out for a cell)

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