New York’s Cell Phone Holdouts Embrace Gizmo They Once Hated

You know that jerk who’s gabbing away on a cell phone? Now, it seems, more and more, that jerk is you. For years, a great number of New Yorkers have disdained cellular phones. Those gizmos seemed a little, well, tacky , more suited to the car culture of wide-open Los Angeles than to the pedestrian confines of Manhattan. But lately, even the last few holdouts are giving up their resistance. They don’t feel great about it, but they’re purchasing cell phones of their own, bringing us all closer to that day, maybe 20 years hence, when a telephone that actually plugs into the wall is just another antique curiosity.

“I used to curse at people on the street,” said West Village native Kenny Wachtel, 27, a film editor, speaking over his newly purchased Motorola. “Now, I’m still annoyed. But then I’m like-’Oh, wait, I’m one of them.’”

So, too, is East Village resident Gary Greenberg, 35, a writer and stand-up comic. “It used to be every time I saw somebody with a cell phone, I thought they were obnoxious,” he said. “Well, right now I’m standing in line in the middle of La Guardia, and I’m talking into thin air, and, yes, there is something a little obnoxious about it.”

But Mr. Greenberg has ceased to care. Just like Aliza Rabinoff, a 27-year-old publicist who resisted long after others in her field went cellular. She finally cracked last December. “I’ll look in store windows and see myself talking on the phone,” she said, “and it’s like, ‘ What am I doing? ‘”

What Took Them So Long?

The cell phone, or Advanced Mobile Phone System, as it was originally known, was invented in 1977 and approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 1983. According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade organization located in Washington, D.C., the number of cellular phone subscribers escalated nationally from 91,600 in January 1985 to 69,209,321 at the end of last year. Precise regional figures are not available, but Bell Atlantic Mobile, the metropolitan area’s leading carrier, claims that about one in four Americans has a cell phone, which translates to approximately 1.9 million New Yorkers.

That doesn’t mean it’s an enthusiastic 1.9 million.

“I feel like a lame-ass when I’m holding it,” said Carrie Aller, 25, an actress who lives in Cobble Hill. “I feel really cheese-ball.”

“I thought it was cheesy. I thought it was silly,” said Paige Bradbury, 24, who works at McGraw-Hill Company and succumbed a few weeks ago to a modest black Ericsson.

“I thought it would be really humiliating for me to run around babbling into a cell phone,” said Russell Farhang, 24, a violinist and owner of a brand-new Samsung who lives on the Upper East Side. “I sort of look like enough of a yuppie.”

And yet, they capitulated-in large measure because, many say, the pay phone failed them.

Death of the Pay Phone

Pay phones used to be cool. They provided shelter from storms; trench coat-wearing detectives made important calls in them; so did the wise-cracking reporters in the screwball comedies. People used to be so fond of pay phones, they would stuff themselves into them.

Well, times have changed.

“In New York, none of the pay phones work. If they do work, they have schmutz all over them, and, you know, you’re going to get germs,” said Mr. Greenberg.

“It sounds wimpy,” agreed Mr. Farhang. “But I’m sort of finicky about my hands.”

It probably hasn’t helped that, for several years now, an urban legend has floated around Manhattan claiming that heroin users like to leave their H.I.V.-infected needles in the coin return slots (which, as every New Yorker knows, frequently don’t return coins at all).

Mimi Schultz, 26, who’s taking premed classes at Hunter College and dates Mr. Wachtel, the film editor, wasn’t bothered by the these particular pay phone problems. But she had another beef.

“I didn’t like hearing that little recording that says ‘Thank you for choosing a Bell Atlantic pay phone,’ she said through her staticky Qualcomm. “I didn’t choose Bell Atlantic. It chose me!”

Ms. Schultz was standing on East 68th Street. Her boyfriend drove up in his forest-green Subaru. “He once scorned them,” whispered Ms. Schultz, of cell phones. “And he’s still surprised that he’s got one.” She climbed into the car.

Cell Phones and Love

In a moment, Mr. Wachtel, the boyfriend, called back on his Motorola. “I’m talking on a headset!” he bragged. He said he purchased his phone after reading a New York Times article suggesting one could easily bring it back to the store if dissatisfied.

“I sort of made a half-assed attempt to return it, and they, like, threatened me,” Mr. Wachtel said. As he spoke, his car was curving its way through Central Park, and his signal was fading in and out as it swept through tunnels. “But I wasn’t very assertive. Secretly, I wanted to keep it.”

His attachment might very well be sentimental, since Ms. Schultz’s mobile played a crucial role in the duo’s courtship.

“I was put off by the cell phone at first,” admitted Mr. Wachtel. “But it was endearing on one level, because she didn’t really seem like a cell phone person. The pleasure she took in the gadget-ness of it was endearing.”

In the background, Ms. Schultz was cooing something unintelligible.

It isn’t all sweetness, though, as Park Slope resident Cristina Merlo, 30-who recently had a Nokia foisted upon her by her “profoundly digital” live-in boyfriend-can attest.

“It’s tragic,” said Ms. Merlo. “I held out as long as I possibly could.” The device has already caused friction, she said. “It bothered him that I would ask him if he must bring it with us someplace, like the movie theater. And the answer is No. He’s a dork.”

Ms. Merlo works as a product manager for America Online Inc. Shouldn’t she, you know … “Yes! I should be embracing the technology! But I can’t . I hate it. I really hate it,” she said. “I don’t think you ought to be receiving phone calls at Dean & DeLuca while you’re paying for your expensive groceries. I don’t want to be accessible all the time .”

Inconspicuous Consumers

For Sven Birkerts, the literary critic and “self-acknowledged technoskeptic,” cellular phones come with their own esthetic and moral problems. He believes a little self-hatred in a cell phone user might not be such a bad thing.

Mr. Birkerts, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., recently paid a visit to Manhattan for the first time in a year. He described himself as unpleasantly surprised and alienated by the sudden high concentration of cell-phone-yakking pedestrians in midtown.

“It struck me overwhelmingly,” Mr. Birkerts said. “If you are holding the thing and talking into it, then the line of intimacy or connection goes to the person you’re talking to, and it kind of eliminates the physical space that you’re in, and it kind of insults the other people in that space. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I’m aware of it as an insult.”

George Stephanopoulos has happily used mobiles provided by the Clintons and his publisher, but has never had one of his own. He phoned from the road on his book tour. “It does feel rude,” he said. “It shouldn’t, necessarily, but it does. It’s people pretending they’re not in the city. But this just shows how everything changes. People used to think it was incredibly rude to eat on the street.”

The self-hating cell phone user is aware of how offensive he seems and uses certain strategies to combat that impression.

“I don’t know how to use it,” volunteered Ms. Merlo proudly. “I don’t know how to get the messages from it, and I don’t know the phone number to it!”

Ms. Rabinoff downplayed her phone, speaking of it as if it were something made by Shakers: “There’s no name on it,” she said. “No glow-in-the-dark, no Day-Glo, none of that stuff.”

Mr. Greenberg said he took care to get a tiny phone-not for status reasons (the joke goes that this is the one realm in which men brag about how small theirs are) but so that it would be “unobtrusive.”

“I am self-conscious about running around with it,” said Mr. Farhang, the squeamish violinist, who has also tried the bathroom trick. “I kind of cup my palm around it and try not to let people see it.”

None of them is fooling Mr. Birkerts.

“The people who use them adopt a body language of extreme secrecy and intimacy,” sneered the professor. “It gives the impression to the person on the street that ‘something really important is happening here that I’m not a part of, that it’s so important that it can’t wait for him to be in a quiet place,’ and that makes what I’m doing seem really trivial.”

Also, he said, “Every time someone’s on the phone, on the street talking in some weird way the ‘there’ that they’re talking to is brought into the picture. It’s like this collapsing of all geographies into one place. We get more and more used to a kind of contact that takes us out of where we are sort of biologically bound to be. It has, philosophically at least, the effect of neutering your own environment.” Rather like a Gap store.

Vanessa Lenz, 24, a photographer’s assistant who lives in Gramercy Park, is one New Yorker still on the fence. She suspects she’ll buy the “cute” silver Nokia she’s been eyeing come summer. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be happy about it.

“I want to get a phone, but there’s still the, like, tacky ‘I’ve got a phone’ thing,” she said. “Even though that’s kind of gone away because everybody has a phone.”

“It’s not an esthetic thing,” said Mr. Stephanopoulos, trying to explain why, exactly, he doesn’t like cell phones. “It feels like a money thing, but it’s not really. It’s just-I don’t know what it is. I don’t know. I don’t know . It’s just one of those mysteries.”

So will he ever cave and buy one of his own?

“Probably.”