I’m still motoring through Agatha Christie’s back catalog, and the novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? has me impressed with how quickly its various characters are able to communicate by post or phone. It has me thinking that I too once lived in a world free of email or cell phones, and I don’t recall having much trouble making plans with friends or family if I wanted to emerge from my hermitage.
I can’t seem to remember how we arranged times or places with accuracy. I really can’t remember how we made things happen, how for instance we’d know to show up in front of the bookstore on a particular day and time. I don’t remember anyone failing to show up for such rendezvous. Late at times, yes, but absent, no.
This failure of memory seems absurd to me. It’s not like the first generation of car drivers forgot how to ride horses or how to read a train schedule. The part of my brain responsible for remembering how I made plans before I had a cell phone must be the same region that eventually forgets the particulars of a brand logo once a new one is adopted. This brand-forgetfulness has been a lifelong minor plague. When I was seven years old, my family passed through a small town that still had an older version of the K-Mart logo. The relief I felt at seeing the older logo was akin to dreaming of a friend I hadn’t seen in years (and said friend looking the same as when I last saw him or her). It’s the relief of knowing that your memory is longer and deeper than you suspect, even if your mental search engine doesn’t deliver an answer when you want it.
Now I feel like a cell phone is a shopping necessity. I could miss a call or text from home asking me to add something to my cart. Or, heaven forbid, I could “lose” my daughter or husband in the store. This is a part of life before cell phones that I do remember. My mom had a knack for disappearing in department stores. The larger the store, the greater the probability she’d slip away while I was thumbing through 45 rpm music singles or combing through a shirt display to find one in my size (which I could get only if it was on sale). I’d look up and Mom would be nowhere in sight. I’d spend the next half hour wandering the store and finding her only at the moment I’d given her up as lost for good. I’d spot her right before she slipped into some alternate retail reality where the pictures of mothers and not children are to be seen on milk cartons.
I’d have appreciated some way of knowing exactly where she was, but a cell phone would have diluted her mystique I suppose. Unless she went missing in a store, I had persistent knowledge of her whereabouts. I didn’t have to wonder if she was in the bathroom or the backyard or the planet Venus. I just knew. Perhaps such transparency was exhausting at times.
How did we let others know where we’d be and when we’d get there?