A crowded restaurant. The place is full of teenagers. Everyone is on their phones. Nobody is talking. I am here with my cousin’s 13-year-old son.
He is playing on his phone when he asks, “What was it like before smartphones?”
“It was different,” I answer. “Very different.”
“Different?” he replies, whilst wrapping up his current text. “Different—like—how?”
“Well, for starters, we had real conversations.”
“What do you mean?”
I mean we actually talked to each other in complete sentences. Using audible voices. And eye contact. And body language. It was our only option for interpersonal communication other than the United States Postal Service.
“What about phones?” he says, still staring at his phone. “You mean you never called each other phones when you were kids?”
We did. But it was a lengthy process. Allow me to explain:
Let’s say you were going to call your friend, Tater Log, to finalize important weekend plans. Plans which would involve wholesome activities that included, building a fire in the woods, attaching baseball cards to bicycle spokes, and confiscating Biblical magazines from someone’s father’s dresser drawer.
First, you would walk into the kitchen, lift the 8-pound receiver on your family’s heirloom rotary phone, and you would actually DIAL Tater Log’s phone number, using a rotary dial. You would dial the number from memory.
Correct. We had hundreds of phone numbers memorized. Hundreds of thousands, actually. We even memorized the local bank’s phone number which, every time you called, would tell you the current time and temperature.
“Why did you need to know the time? Didn’t you have clocks?”
You have to worry about America.
So, anyway. When you called Tater Log, his mother would answer first. Which meant you had to answer a string of complicated parental questions about (a) how your mother was doing, (b) how your granny was doing, and (c) how everyone in your direct ancestry was doing, including your cousin Peter, thrice removed. This was a separate conversation in and of itself and often took several hours.
That’s right. And only after you spoke to Tater Log’s mom were you allowed to speak to Tater Log, who—get this—might or MIGHT NOT be available to come to the phone.
Why? Because, here’s the thing: We did not have instant access to everyone, at all times, whenever we wanted them. When you called a person, you took a real chance they might be busy.
“Busy doing what?”
Living. Your friend might be off engaging in the real world, enjoying their own life, following the Pursuit of Happiness, trying to decapitate a Stretch Armstrong doll, etc. In fact you might not receive a callback from this person until after four or five presidential administrations.
“So your friend was, what, busy in his room or something?”
No. He was probably outside. That’s where we all grew up. Outdoors. We children were never inside.
There was no reason to stay indoors, we had nothing to entertain us except for Slinkys, amputated GI Joes, and a broken Magic Eight Ball which answered every question with vindictive noncommittal responses. “Cannot predict now.” “Ask again later.” “My sources say you are an idiot.”
Moreover, we loved being outside. We lived for tree climbing. We enjoyed imaginative games, such as Army, throwing rocks at loved ones’ windows, or burying friends with shovels to see how long they could hold their breath.
“But,” saith the child, “was there even a way you could send texts to each other?”
Don’t make me laugh, I might injure my prostate. Text messages? We wouldn’t have been able to text if we’d wanted to. We were horrible typists. We weren’t exposed to QWERTY keyboard during infancy, like the children of today.
We had to attend typing class to learn about keyboards, wherein an elderly man named Mister Woodrow, with nuclear B.O., would teach typing on manual Remington typewriters that had arrived on the Mayflower.
We students were compelled to spend all day typing nonsensical sentences such as, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” Or “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Or “Mister Woodrow smells like a bovine excremental orifice.”
Today, however, children are introduced to computer keyboards at young ages. In fact, in many maternity wards, children are immediately given iPhones so they can update their TikTok.
“Wow,” the boy says, thoughtfully. “I didn’t realize things were so bad when your generation was growing up. It sounds like you missed out on a lot.”
You know, it’s funny.
That’s exactly what I was going to say about your generation.