The Old And The Phoneless


Right now I am in a hotel room in Hong Kong. It is 5:30 in the morning, which means in New York City, where my own bed and favorite deli are, it’s 5:30 yesterday night. When I think too hard on it, the science involved confounds my weak understanding of physics. I get how the west coast is three hours behind the east coast. But then you keep going west, and it’s tomorrow. Tomorrow is the opposite of earlier. It’s the future. The unintuitive passage of time on my trip makes me want to reread Slaughterhouse Five, to study its confluences of past and future with new credulousness. It also makes me wish I could sleep past 4:30 because this jet lag is making me real loopy.

This trip has presented a new set of circumstances for me. I have never been this far from home before. I’ve really only left the United States twice before in my life, and both journeys occurred over a span of seven days, and both trips were to Canada’s Quebec province. Before this week, I’d never given serious consideration to the differences in electrical current used by outlets around the world. Non-USA ports and plugs seemed like the reproductive habits of the goldfish; I’d heard of them and believed they existed, but I’d never seen or had any practical use for them. Despite the novelty of the buildings, the accents, the subway system, and the food, spending time in Hong Kong gives me the old familiar sensation of being in high school.

The primary catalyst for my forced nostalgia comes from the fact that I am, for the first time in my post-college life, without a functioning cellular phone. And, for the first time in roughly three years, I’m without a functioning smartphone.

(Lengthy side note: What I mean by this is that my iPhone, which normally functions as a jukebox, camera, video game console, day planner, notebook, alarm clock, voice recorder, and tether to the outside world has been reduced to a mere jukebox/camera/video game console/day planner/notebook/alarm clock/voice recorder. This is not a complaint, just an observation.)

The phoneless high school experience marks the first significant divide between me and the crop of youngsters five years my juniors. Compared to my adult scheduling techniques, my high school social life required an Italian Job level of planning. My friends and I set an agenda and we kept to it, because we had no choice. If our crew planned to meet up at Burger King at 2, and the line was too long, we waited for everyone to show up before we could move on to an alternate destination. If a friend wasn’t home, and you wanted to get in touch with him… sorry. It took a phone-tree style effort to track him down and relay the simplest message. I’m not saying things were better or harder (or anything old guys say to disparage younger guys) back then, but they were different, if only in terms of how much effort went into organizing a trip to the movies. (And that doesn’t even factor in the inability to buy movie tickets over a dial-up internet connection.)

So I’m here for the Hong Kong International Mobile Film Awards, a third of the way around the world from where I live, but phoneless, I feel like I’m back in my hometown planning a late night trip to IHOP. In addition to my impression that everyone here is really cool and smart and I want them to be my friends, I’m subject to all the practical social concerns I thought I’d left in the early aughts along with voice cracks and JNCO Jeans. (Anyone too young to remember JNCO Jeans probably thinks I am some kind of bloggin’ grandpa.) The subway here is a mystery to me, just like Boston’s network of underground transit was in my teens. I have no real sense of how much things should cost or what a reasonable one-night expenditure is. The folks with access to beer are inordinately popular (or maybe ordinately).

Most throwbacky (sorry, it’s 6:30 a.m., now, and I’m on seven hours of sleep total for the last two nights) of all is the return to circumstance-imposed social rigidity. My film festival cohort and I have been moving in a pack because it’s too much of a hassle not to. We’d never end up in the same place otherwise. It’s making me feel an acute pressure to make myself socially indispensible. If I’m not entertaining or helpful or considerate enough, I might just get left behind by accident on the next twist an outing takes. That’s not a problem I’ve had in years. It’s a high school problem. I shouldn’t have those anymore. I’m too bald.

The situation is making me feel close to everyone when we’re together, but especially distant when we’re apart. Last night, while my new friends were on the roof discussing the day’s events, I went back to my room to get my camera/jukebox/etc. Though I was only 27 stories below them, I might as well have been on a plane back to New York.

Or, more accurately, I just as easily could have been twelve years in the past.

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