Cellular memories, a to z

I have an unhealthy affinity for my car, and for driving in general, which of course means that a) I live in LA and b) I like to take road trips. And while I enjoy traveling with the right friends (i.e., whoever lets me control the stereo), I also just like driving alone. In part, that’s because I like being alone, and I never feel as alone as I do in my car. Honestly, I don’t mind driving for 12, 15 hours straight, with nothing but the road and the music to keep me company.

This winter break, I decided to drive from LA to Seattle to visit my family. But somewhere along the drive, sick of the radio and my CDs, I got, well, lonesome. I wanted to talk to a friend, so I picked up my cell phone, feeling somewhat sheepish, since I was calling for no other reason than loneliness (and, sorry, a bit of boredom), not to mention the 500 miles of driving ahead of me (an obnoxious reason for calling, I know). After I let Nikki go back to her life, having sufficiently imposed my own liberated-yet-imprisoned open-road status upon her, I had one of those epiphanies that only occur when you’ve been driving for eight or nine hours, with nothing to look at but the generically brownish-yellowish fields and farms along the 5 freeway.

Somehow it dawned on me that it would be interesting to call every number, every person, listed in my phone’s memory: alphabetically, A to Z (or, I suppose, in my case, A to W).

As epiphanies go, this would be on the lesser end of the sliding-epiphany scale, and I actually dismissed the idea almost instantly. But over the course of the drive, I kept coming back to the idea, kept thinking, wow, wouldn’t it make a good This American Life story? (Along with a lot of music, I had been listening to dozens of downloaded episodes of my favorite NPR program.) I imagined the dual Romanticism of these simultaneous journeys, literally driving down the road while figuratively traveling through my past and present by reconnecting with all of these people, some of whom I hadn’t called in years.

But the problem is that I’m a bit of a telephone-number pack rat. Like so many of us, I’ll type a new acquaintance’s number into my cell phone rather than writing it on a scrap of paper. And then I’ll never delete it. So when I actually sifted through my digital phone book, I found 86 different numbers. Scrutinizing each number carefully, I counted about 52 numbers I’d actually feel more or less comfortable calling (some of them were cell and home numbers for the same person). Of those 52, maybe half belonged to people I actually would be excited to talk to, people like Steph and Scott and Farrell and Rebecca and Nikki and Kevin and Lisa and Sara. The other half belonged to people I might feel slightly awkward calling—though I imagined these conversations being pleasant, for the most part.

Otherwise, this left about 34 numbers that I did not want to call, not under current circumstances (or, in a few cases, any circumstances), numbers belonging mostly to distant acquaintances (but to some not-so-distant ones, as well). This meant that I would be uncomfortable calling nearly 40% of the people listed in my phone. I wondered if that was unusual. I wondered what the average percentage might be. I wondered—what’s your percentage?

Take the first few names in my phone book, the “A” numbers: Adam, Albus, Amely, Anthony, Autumn. Adam is a guy I used to play basketball with. I called him once to find out if the group was playing that week—which was maybe five years ago. Albus is John Albus (actually, it’s his mother’s phone). I love Albus and would talk to him every week, if he weren’t always off in Alaska or living in a tree in Hawaii. Seriously. Amely… Hmm. I believe I went on two dates with Amely, like, three or four years ago. Neither of us was very interested, so we never went on a third, and never so much as called each other after that. Anthony is a great guy, a guy I’ve known for years, and though I really like him, I haven’t called in several of those years. Of these five people, Autumn is the only one I see regularly, but I almost never call her—we usually just run into each other at various mutual friends’ functions.

I guess the point is that I can’t imagine ever calling at least two of these people, Adam and Amely, and I can’t foresee needing any of these phone numbers in the near future. So the only numbers worth keeping or calling belong to Albus’ mom and, perhaps, Anthony and Autumn.

But, really, if I were to call any of these five friends/acquaintances, there might be a bit of awkwardness, but not the sort of extreme discomfort I can imagine if I called some of the other numbers listed in my phone: the ex-girlfriends who still refuse to be in the same room as me; the landlord who, years ago, screwed me out of my security deposit; or that nice couple whose party I attended, gracefully tipsy, until I switched over to the cheap whiskey and threw up in the sink prior to passing out on their bathroom floor. There’s even one number belonging to someone named “G,” someone I don’t remember at all.

So why do I keep all of these numbers?

My dad has been a cell phone salesman for years, and for years I resisted getting one, despite the “family plan” he assured me would cost “next to nothing.” Of course, once I got my real cell phone, ditching the family plan after two months and a $400 bill (since my dad didn’t tell me the “family plan” topped out at 100 minutes per month), I couldn’t be without it, and I immediately forgot every phone number except my mother’s, my father’s, and my own. So, in part, since the cell phone has replaced a specific part of my brain, I keep these numbers because I know I’m not capable of remembering them anymore.

But I also fear that, as I get older, and my memory dries up (I can feel it doing just that, right now), I worry about keeping some small hold on these memories, these numbers and names representing parts of my life, large and small, past and present and future. If I didn’t have Amely’s name and number right there (which probably doesn’t even work anymore), would I ever think about her? Or would that memory just disappear completely? And would it matter?

(Maybe that’s what really frightens me—hanging onto some of these memories might not even matter anymore.)

Anyway, getting back to my road trip, I did call quite a few of my friends. However, if you haven’t guessed already, I just couldn’t do it—I couldn’t call all of those numbers, all of those people. The task just seemed too daunting, too awkward, possibly even too painful. But I like knowing those numbers are still there, in my memory-addendum, my cell phone, in case I do decide to call. Perhaps all those numbers make me feel less lonely, after all.

I’ve never driven across the country, and I’d love to do that soon. Perhaps then I’ll be able to call all those numbers that I can’t bring myself to delete.

Who knows?

Could you do it?

18 responses to “Cellular memories, a to z”

  1. Nathan Waterman says:

    “…that’s because I like being alone, and I never feel as alone as I do in my car.”
    cars make me anxious, and so does being alone. i need to work on both. there’s no way could i call all my contacts. i even got a new cell phone a few months ago and have started over on my contact list.

  2. Mikelle F says:

    A couple of months ago, Mike used my phone and said he couldn’t believe how many contacts I had in it. Interesting observation, I thought, so I went through the list to see who was in it. I, too, discovered the same long list of memories. Former colleagues, former dates, former church friends and acquaintences, former workout friends, most of whom I’d also feel awkward calling, but a few of whom I did actually call. I was surprised at how well the conversations went. They were glad to hear from me. We caught up on news, talked about future plans and for the most part, hung up knowing that we probably wouldn’t talk again for some time. But it was nice keeping in touch.

    People often ask whether I miss my twin sister who lives far away. I say that just knowing she is on the planet and that I can call or write whenever I want is all the comfort I need. I guess I feel kind of the same about all of those contacts.

  3. Jeremy Zitter says:

    It’s funny, I probably should have used the word “contacts” in my post (a term both Nate and Mikelle use, a term that makes sense), but despite the obvious denotations of that word–physical contact, connection, etc.–it seems so impersonal, business-like, professional. I tend to think of my phone list as a personal history, and I like to think, too, that these people are all my friends, though that’s of course not the case.

    (Mikelle, I’m curious–did you delete any of those “contacts” after your conversation with Mike?)

  4. nikki. says:

    calling for no other reason than boredom??? geez. . .what the heck am i going to do with you?

  5. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Sigh, you’re right, Nikki–I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. OK, so I altered it a bit. How’s that?

  6. nikki. says:

    hmmm. . .much better, jeremy. this is my favorite post of yours so far despite my smart aleck comment from before. i was just imagining what it’d be like to pick up my phone and call someone at ticketmaster or the fed ex in burbank and start chating them up. . .i see i’ve got some thinning out to do.

  7. Bryan Waterman says:

    ooh. nikki. i like that period after your name.

    hope to see you in LA this summer.

  8. chrissy says:

    i can’t believe you would’ve felt awkward calling me! i always call random people on roadtrips. i had an ex-boyfriend who went to school in Iowa and would make me talk to him for his entire four hour drive from school to home (Milwaukee).

    so here’s how i handle my cell phone address book- it always has to have 100 contacts. in the beginning i added a bunch of numbers i never call, like ex-boyfriends and family members to get to that point, and whenever i add a new number i force myself to delete one i never use. but i suppose this only works for me because i’m actually anal enough to write all these numbers down in a paper address book also. you should really think about that in case your phone ever breaks. what do you then?

  9. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I wasn’t talking about you, Chrissy. Honestly, I would never feel awkward calling you.

    I like your 100 contacts idea.

    And you’re right, if I lost my phone i would be screwed because I don’t have any of those numbers written down.

  10. Mikelle F says:

    “(Mikelle, I’m curious–did you delete any of those “contacts” after your conversation with Mike?)”

    I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that… Yes, I did delete some of those old numbers. Partly for practical reasons–I had 12 people whose name started with M and came before Mike’s, so I had to scroll down really far to dial him (it’s a Sony Ericcson thing, you hit the letter M in the phone list and then scroll down to the one you want). And partly because I was ready to let some of those old memories go. I felt torn between acknowledging the unlikely possibility of ever calling the people wose numbers I deleted again and leaving open the possibility. I like the idea that my phone list is a sort of memory album. I like even more the possibility that I can do more with those numbers than just remember someone, some time. I can call and reconnect. Maybe I’ll be slower to delete numbers again.

    Great post, Jeremy.

  11. nikki. says:

    i hope to see you and the family too, bryan.

  12. anonymous says:

    Hmmm, Jeremy. Next time you’re bored, you should read, “They’re Just Like Us” in Us Weekly. It passes the time better, and though it has no purpose, you shouldn’t be pondering such deep thoughts on what’s supposed to be a relaxing trip. When you go on a trip, use whatever possible to get away — don’t reach for the things that are going to bring you back.

  13. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I love “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” in US Weekly! And if I could simultaneously drive AND read about how Paris Hilton pumps gas, too (just like me!), then I would do just that all the way to Seattle and back.

    (Who the heck is this, anyway?)

  14. Bryan Waterman says:

    does People podcast that shit?

  15. anonymous says:

    hmmm, can’t tell you…my feelings toward you are too inappropriate to reveal myself. Maybe you’ll find out later. Good story by the way. I didn’t comment on how much I actually liked it last time

  16. […] Night one of post-relationship was hard (as expected), but I really wasn’t prepared for the shock of being alone. I made up my new bed, put on a twin sized sheet and fluffed the only pillow. I drank my tea alone, brushed my teeth alone, and listened to the stereo…alone. It was an uncomfortable new feeling and one that made me squirm. My automatic reaction was to pick up my cell phone and relieve my loneliness, but as I flipped through my contacts (…well, Cobble Hill Cinema is not a friend!) I realized I needed to sit with myself for awhile. I thought back to my first week in New York, days after leaving the Mission Training Center, listening to Wilco’s “Alone”. […]

  17. Scott Godfrey says:

    I found this entry comforting, much in the same way one feels an inner “all-right!” when correctly predicting the next line in a movie. You are acting according to the plan (insert sinister laughter).

  18. […] Two weeks ago in this space, Jeremy Zitter invited us to contemplate our “Cellular memories, A to Z” – to scroll down our cell phone memory lists and see who’s there. I don’t store many numbers in my cell phone, so my trip down that particular memory lane would be short and uninteresting. But there’s another catalogue of strange encounters that I love to periodically revisit: the sprawling, unruly, unweeded-out bookmarks list on my browser. […]