The Joy of Losing Your Phone

App life has freed us from the kindness of strangers. Is it any wonder we feel so alone?
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It happened, as I knew in the depths of my subconscious that it eventually would, as I was crossing the Plaza Garibaldi. I reached into my purse to take a picture of a mariachi band in magnificent electric blue sequins, and found a phone-shaped pocket of air where previously there had been a phone. I had left it in the taxi.

Phoneless, Carless, Friendless
From the Triptych:

Phoneless, Carless, Friendless

The ground slipped from under me. It was the kind of shock that the mind rejects at first, a recoil and disbelief that I imagine characterizes more weighty revelations. For a moment I stood forked at the intersection of two lanes of possibility. I could see, with perfect clarity, the road not taken rolling out before me: a night spent cheerfully traipsing from one mariachi group to another on the big outdoor plaza where families congregate and couples dance. I would take some pictures, maybe I’d dance a little, I’d walk home and be in bed at my hotel at a very reasonable hour. I could see the grim outlines of the other possibility too. No videos of singers for my mother, no carefree two-steps. Tomorrow, a long, convoluted, and probably fruitless quest to recover the phone — borrowing phones, stretching my inadequate Spanish, getting transferred. And then, when I failed, recovering passwords, recovering tickets, trying to remember all the things that only my phone could do whose absence might inconvenience me when alone in a strange country.

I stood at the fork, looking down, but it was an illusion: I was already hurtling down one road, and it had happened in an instant I hadn’t even noticed. I had already been to several neighborhoods that travel websites warned to avoid; I had gone to bars alone and walked at night and made friends with strangers; I had always known on some level that misfortune, with me, strikes not from the dangerous outside world but from the hopelessly dopey inner one.

It is becoming less and less easy, these days, not to have a phone. And that means a smartphone. First the payphones went — I think I may have been one of the last people to use the last ones, visiting New York City alone in my teens. Then the Internet cafes disappeared — in my college years, in Heathrow Airport I scrounged for coins in my purse to notify my mother that I had accidentally booked my return flight for the following month and thus did not need a ride home from the airport. Today, restaurant menus are a casualty of Covid. If you obdurately insist that the QR code doesn’t work for you, the long-suffering waiter might read you the menu off his own phone, like a French maître d’ presenting a rarefied prix fixe experience to the Unabomber. Contactless payments picked up hygienic steam in 2020; at one of those $12-salad places, to present a credit card for swiping at the gleaming white curves of the point of sale is to hold up the line (cash is a form of minor sociopathy). You can still hail cabs with your hand if you must, but for how long? Banks, airlines, fast food: more places at least expect, if not yet absolutely require, that you will download an app as a preliminary to doing business.

It is easy to see why. The comfort of a phone, while you have it, is seductive and all-encompassing. With a touch of your fingers, you can have a cab, a meal, directions. You can change a flight, you can book a hotel, you can translate unknown words, you can while away ten minutes. It is the closest any of us will ever get to having a gentleman’s personal gentleman. Five minutes in, and you wonder how you ever lived any other way. Five minutes with some disposable income and a phone in your hand, and life is smooth and seamless and ordered, and you are warmly sheltered; to find the safe center of the world, you need only keep your eyes on the glowing angel in your hand.

So you can see how, at the Plaza Garibaldi, I felt that I, like Prometheus, lay liver-exposed on a bare rock face, looking up at a hostile sky.

Still, it was the Plaza Garibaldi and there was music in the air. The large stone-paved square in Mexico City is lined with palms, surrounded on its three sides by colonial-style buildings the color of cream, tangerines, pistachios. During the day drunks and hobos pass the time. They’re still there at night, but on the weekends the mariachi bands come, their voices rising above the faint mingled smell of sweat, gasoline, urine, dust, beer. In groups of three and four and five, they orchestrate sighing violins and rambunctious accordions and male harmonies that hang in the air like a finely pitched yell. For a few pesos they will play you a song. In the long dusk of city lights, the sequins gleaming and flashing, the embroidered jackets tailored to swelling chests, the jaunty cowboy hats, the pleasant cacophony, give the impression of having stumbled into a rare aviary.

I suppose a more single-minded person might have immediately returned to the hotel and tried to begin the process of phone recovery. I decided to stay. I sat outside on a bench listening to a few bands, then went into the Tenampa.

If you’ve just lost your phone in a foreign city, the Salón Tenampa is a good place to go and have a beer about it. Since the 1920s, the bar, open to the square, has played host to one mariachi great after another. The atmosphere is a concentrated version of the plaza: bands go from table to table offering performances for cash. Couples get up from their drinks and dance to rowdy cowboy beats in the spaces between the tables.

I sat at the long polished wood bar nursing a Tecate, and watched. The walls of the restaurant are covered with murals, many of famous musicians past and present. Across the salon, Aida Cuevas’s piercing gaze looked out at me from under a rakishly tilted sombrero. When, her arched eyebrows seemed to ask, did you become such a baby?

It was a good question. When did I become like this? When did I become someone who could be thrown off balance by the loss of a personal device? Only recently did I even become a smartphone owner, and only recently did I have a cell phone at all — its lack had produced a chorus of exasperation among friends and lovers throughout my twenties. During that time, which was also marked by no car and little money, I had hardly locked myself away and repined. I had traveled domestically and internationally, by bus and train and plane. I had gone to parties.

I might be able to get a ride across town from a friend; later, when the last stragglers were calling their Ubers and no one was going my way, I smiled and hugged myself internally. Let people think I was meeting mine outside. I could walk home, three miles, five miles, six miles in the dark. I could do anything I wanted to, anything I needed to. When the train I was riding arrived too late into the station, with a no-show ride and no money for a taxi, a gallant homeless man showed me his own secret place to curl up. While friends tried to make plans in long group texts, I picked a place and a time and said I’d meet anyone who showed up. Or I didn’t meet them. I liked being on my own anyway. I figured out how to get messages outside of straightforward channels when I didn’t have the number I needed, messages left at the bar or through a friend of a friend. I made first- and second-order contingency plans, and revised them on the fly. No logistical ups and downs could really bother me.

It was a kind of internal self-sufficiency that I eventually traded for a more convenient (for everyone involved) prosthetic one. There is, perhaps, something good and healthy about losing crankish independence in order to submit to and take your place in the social rhythms around you, even at the cost of some instinctive capability.

SnapperUK / Alamy

But the lines between independence and dependence are not as clear-cut as they seem. Among my peer group, I was a crank for missing out on the “millennial lifestyle subsidy” of the 2010s, the cheap Ubers and Airbnb stays and DoorDash meals, all heavily discounted by venture capital. Yet on a larger scale I was enmeshed in a web of dependence that their phones freed them from. The gallant homeless man, the stranger with directions, the bartender willing to tell a friend I’d had to go home unexpectedly: all of them were crucial to my day-to-day functioning. No particular instance of aid could be depended on, but all appeared as representatives of the utterly dependable fraternity of those at the mercy of chance — of mortals.

In college, when smartphones were still a luxury good but cell phones were universal, I showed up for my freshman year as one of the only students without one. Social rhythms were already bending around the possibility of instantaneous and continuous communication. The nervous and natural desire not to enter a party alone met the possibility of endless revisions. Where and when to meet, to primp, to pre-game, which party first, when to leave — all were now open-ended. Large groups formed, and every member of the herd had input. With all the best will in the world, I simply could not keep up without a phone.

So I started going out by myself. I would pick a party, and if my friends were there, I would join them. If not, I would talk to new people. Independence there, but also dependence: I didn’t need to wait for a peer group, but I trusted that someone would open the door, that my singular state would not be taken as social leprosy, that people would talk to me if I didn’t know anyone. (I did not realize, at the time, that I was taking my social fate in my hands; successfully carrying off an eccentricity is as much a dangerous power gamble in college as in Edith Wharton’s New York. That is just as well. Like a more beer-oriented Antigone, once I learned that you could appeal to a higher pro-social cohesion, the lower could never bully me again.)

In the bitchy little world of college, as in the cold train station and the dark street, I learned it again and again. You are vulnerable. Everyone represents a possible danger. But everyone also represents, at a truer level, a friend. And nine times out of ten, it is the friendship — the friendship on sight, unqualified and uncalculated, bound by threads that stretch across distance and class and normal enmity to every other member of the fraternity — that wins out. I will never turn down a request to borrow my phone to make a call, or to cough up five bucks for train fare, scam or no — not out of any high principle, but from the knowledge that I am looking at myself a year ago, a year hence. We are members of the same fraternity.

With a smartphone, I still had that side of the instinct intact, but I had lost the eyes that scan the field for allies. I had lost the sense that I, too, was entitled to succor. And that sense, even more than my sense of a certain type of self-sufficiency, was what I missed. A phone is the synecdoche and epitome of all the physical and social technologies that free us from the need to be quite so polytropic: commanding a hundred APIs, you forget that you and everyone else are ragged Odysseus. And that you and everyone else can be Nausicaa.

As I reached this gloomy conclusion, two men at the other end of the bar approached me. Was I here alone? Why did I look so gloomy? I poured out my tale of woe. They bought me another beer, and called my phone to no avail (an older me would have already asked someone to do this). They paid one of the mariachi bands to come sing for me. I asked for Vicente Fernández; my gloom did not last for long. At the end, one of the men said “sing one for your mother.” This means a freebie, singer’s choice of song, one of the band members told me. I had never heard the one he chose. Much later, walking past the nighttime homeless encampments and trying to roughly navigate the way home by memory, I whistled it to myself.

My two new friends were acting mostly as emissaries of a slightly different fraternity: men around the world confronted with an unattached pretty woman. But I was grateful for them, for turning the night into a better one than what I had originally planned for myself. On the wall of Salón Tenampa are lines to a song José Alfredo Jiménez wrote, allegedly on the back of a napkin, during one his sprees.

Parranda y Tenampa,
Mariachi y canciones:
Así es como vivo yo.

Carnival and Tenampa,
Mariachi and songs:
This is how I live.

Perhaps I will lose my phone again soon.

Clare Coffey, “Phoneless! at the Plaza Garibaldi,” The New Atlantis, Number 71, Winter 2023, pp. 68–73.
Published online as “The Joy of Losing Your Phone.”
Header image: Rainer Lesniewski / Alamy

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