Cell phones and the world-wide web by
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As a musician, actor, writer, and part-time carpenter, I had grown tired of planning how I was going to buy my next pair of shoes, so I unpacked my diploma and went looking for a job. I had three criteria — the job had to (1) involve writing, editing, and publishing; (2) take place in a socialized workplace; and (3) involve work that furthered the common good. Three months later I had a job as a writer and editor in a civic-education organization that published supplemental curriculum on American and world history, current events, and law-related topics on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. To me, thrilling. Musta been in the right place at the right time.

Our office was planted one block north of Wilshire Boulevard, not downtown, but definitely office-building oriented in the busy mid-Wilshire district. Being busy, the strip of street had plenty of okay restaurants, clothing and office supply stores, a barber shop (not a salon), and even a place where you could take your film to be developed into snapshots. Imagine that.

When I took the job, I vowed I would never brown-bag it. I knew ahead of time that, no matter how cool the people and the workplace was, I would have to get out of there, so every day, I would take off along Wilshire to eat lunch off a menu, alone or with a colleague, either way was fine with me. On the way to lunch and back I would encounter the flow of humanity, replete with its sights, sounds, smells, and events.

One day, as I walked down the street toward Wilshire, I saw a very well-dressed lawyerly looking gentleman talking to himself. Actually, he was arguing with himself, quite vociferously, yelling in an uncontrollable fashion that belied his dark blue, three-piece suited, wing-tipped stature. As I drew closer, I noticed that he was holding one hand to his head as if someone had struck him, but I saw no assailant in view. His madness became intriguing. He wasn’t addressing his remarks to anyone or chasing after an assailant, imagined or otherwise. He just stood there, hollering, holding his head and staring into space.

I approached him with care. I wanted to help but wasn’t sure what smoldering fuse might lie coiled within the confines of that tightly buttoned suit. As I passed, all became clear. Pressed between his open palm and his ear lay a small plastic object about the side of a garage door opener. It was a telephone! Not one of those massive jobs with the antenna, but a small, compact object that looked as if it folded up neatly on itself.

I walked past, stunned. Of course, I had seen them before, but not everyone owned one. I was leery of them. I had avoided beepers. Who would want to be at anybody’s beck and call, tied to the world through a small, ugly hunk of plastic that would attach itself to your belt like a succubus? Not for me. Nossir. I walked on to lunch, enlightened as to the poor man’s odd behavior, and grateful for my freedom.

Time passed. In the office, I learned MS-DOS code, mastering the mysteries of the PC and Microsoft Word while at home I remained smugly married to and fluent with my Apple Macintosh computer. At work, we let go of our pasteup, layout guy and hired a young woman who was learning QuarkXPress and Adobe as fast as they could update it. After that, all our publications were laid out electronically on a large-screened Mac. I stopped submitting my copy on paper.

One afternoon, a young man entered the office to demonstrate why we needed to connect our publications department to something called the world wide web, or Internet. We were more than skeptical. Why would we need to connect to other people on an electronic network? Who was on the other end of the line? How long would it take for us to learn how to use such a ridiculous toy? It seemed great for people who wanted to play space games or create cultic electronic clubs, but educators?

I did understand the power of the web. Before I found this job, I worked as a freelance writer for Philips Interactive, writing biographies of musicians from Mozart to James Brown. The Philips offices were in Santa Monica but, if I put my telephone in a cradle and dialed a certain number, I could actually send the contents of my documents all the way across town — 3000 words of copy in less than forty-five minutes! Not only that, but I could actually dial up the Santa Monica library and an awkward electronic facsimile of the library’s card catalog would appear on my computer screen! But why would our organization want a system like that? We weren’t a library. We weren’t making games. We were a civic-education organization!

By the time I was ready to leave my job, I was writing full-time for our web site. We had online classrooms that linked us to classrooms in the LAUSD, Kansas, and Azerbaijan. We stopped printing tens of thousands of glossy copies of a service-learning journal. Nobody wanted to lug the paper home from the conference if they could access it thru an online link. And I had an iPhone that I would feel naked without.

I remember toward the end of my tenure at this job, I went out to lunch with a friend, walking down that same street toward the bustle of mid-Wilshire. On the corner where the well-heeled lawyer had stood, shouting into space so many years before, a homeless black woman leaned on the handle of her shopping cart screaming into her phone. She sure was angry with somebody. A husband, child, or sister who was supposed to meet her and take her to the clinic for her dialysis. She’d been waiting on the damn corner for over an hour. Again, the urgent authenticity of her voice convinced me of the veracity of her plight until I looked at her right hand, pressed to her ear. Our homeless sister was pouring fire and brimstone into the ear of that husband, child, or sister who had promised to pick her up, but hell, she had no phone. No Motorola, no Samsung, no iPhone, nothing. No phone at all.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Terrific story, Charles, and what an ending. Says something about our society, doesn’t it? I well remember DOS prompts and those sloooowww dial-up modems. There were some very clunky library search engines, too. Great contrast of before and after computers and how people haven’t changed.

    • Thanks, Marian. I thought the lens of a workplace would afford a view of just how much changed from the early 90s until the late 2Ks. The assumptions involved the homeless woman’s cell phone I also found telling even on the moment. And so much more has changed since 2007 as well!

  2. Great story Charles! Here’s another take on your delusional homeless woman.

    My cousin swears he saw a squalid-looking, supposedly homeless man begging in Times Square, holding out a paper-cup in one hand and a cell phone to his ear in the other hand.

  3. Ah C, hopefully.
    A civic group I was with years ago distributed flyers to homeless people with listings of the city’s churches and temples with soup kitchens, staggered so meals were available somewhere in the neighborhood each day.
    Then there were funds for social workers and drug counselors to do outreach at those kitchens.. How successful and if still funds, who knows.
    Other causes, other worries, heaven help us all.

    • Right, Dana. Somewhere along the line from Reagan to the present, we lost it all. Hopefully it’s time for the pendulum to swing back toward empathy. May we stay sane and live so long. Sanity is definitely the key to the benefits program.

      • Yep.
        I started my school library career in 1966 in an inner-city neighborhood in Buffalo , NY.
        The ESEA entitlement programs enacted under LBJ were godsends for funding educational & literacy programming, resources, staffing and my library budget. With changes in administration, such funds dried up, underserving the kids who needed help the most.
        Hoping for a sea change.

  4. Suzy says:

    I love this story so much! The “unpacked my diploma” line is great, and it sounds like the job you found was too. And then what a perfect description of the reaction we all had (or at least most of us) to each new bit of technology – why would we need that? Finally, the irony of the contrast between the “lawyerly” man who appeared to be demented yelling at himself until you saw he had a cellphone, and the homeless woman who seemed quite normal screaming into a phone until you saw she didn’t.

    • Thanks, Suzy. I wrote this story very quickly, knowing I wanted to wrap it in the contrasting analogs of money and poverty and the visual signals we read and the assumptions we make about technology. Now I’m watching the difficulties springing up like the plague about online teaching and available tech for poor kids. “Oh what a tangled web we weave…”

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a great story, Charles. I loved your description of your evolution from paper and creating brochures to the glories of the Internet. Your description of the lawyer on his flip phone was the perfect set up for your ending. I loved every word of it.

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