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The Mermaids of Los Angeles: A Dumbphone in Exile

On a desert journey, coffee-scented oases of WiFi.
April 11, 2013

As loyal readers already know, a few months ago I embarked upon an experiment: I junked my iPhone. Surprising even myself, at the end of the appointed month, I decided not to go back to it. Currently, I make do with a very basic Alcatel phone, together with a hand-me-down dataless Verizon iPhone that I use as a de facto iPod Touch.

I’ve been managing fairly well under this arrangement for the past few months. But I live in New York, a walking-and-public-transit city that I know very well. In fact, after years of freelancing in the city, I even know what libraries, parks, and cafes have reliable WiFi. I know how to get from point A to B, and if I’m ever lost, the streets are teeming with (mostly) friendly people to guide me.

Los Angeles, though, where I’ve just spent the past week, is a world apart. I knew as I flew out last week that my dumbphone existence was about to be put severely to the test. I didn’t even rule out the possibility that I might crumble while I was out there and swiftly drive to an AT&T store to purchase a new iPhone 5.

In the end, I held out. But boy was it tough. And expensive.

My saving grace was a Garmin Nuvi GPS device that I rented from Enterprise (along with a car). The device–or a similar one–appears to cost around $90 at some outlets. I paid about $65 for the privilege, for a week. Without it though, I would have been literally and metaphorically lost. I owned just such a device back in early 2008, and remember feeling foolish for replacing it once it got stolen that summer–only to find it rendered redundant by the iPhone I bought shortly thereafter. But if using the Garmin felt like a time portal to 2007, the alternative would have been far worse: a time portal to the Stone Age of creased maps and bewildered, helpless stops at gas stations. (Surely gas station minimart revenues must have tanked since the advent of ubiquitous consumer GPS.)

If my navigation techniques were something of a throwback, my efforts at connectivity were outright farce. Suffice it to say this: the big winner of my stay in LA was Starbucks. I was reminded of my strategy of looking for the Golden Arches of McDonald’s when seeking a clean bathroom in a foreign country. It’s a trick that works. So, too, does looking for the Green-Haired Mermaid when seeking an oasis of WiFi. Indeed, checking my email in LA began to feel something like having to go to the bathroom–a periodic annoyance cropping up every few hours and only sated by interrupting whatever I had been doing before. I soon learned the exact sequence of buttons to press on my GPS device (“Where to?” “Points of Interest” “Food” <scroll> “Cafes” <scroll> “Starbucks”) when it was time to go to the inbox. Without fail, there was always a Starbucks within a mile or two, if not a block, and the WiFi always flowed freely (after that $3 latte, that is).

All of which is to say that if I sometimes feel smug up on my high horse for having effected a smartphone-free life, my trip to LA knocked me right off it. The technologies we depend on are largely a function of our daily life, its rhythms and most certainly its geography. As an Angeleno acquaintance wrote me, when I confessed that my iPhonelessness might make me a few minutes late for a meeting: “What? How do you SURVIVE?”

The answer: in Los Angeles–or in any unfamiliar or sprawling city–I’m not sure that I could.

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