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Will Pulos
Photograph: Raydene Salinas

The surprising joy of living without a cell phone in NYC

In a city of smartphone addicts, Time Out New York editor Will Pulos braves life off the grid. Can he survive?

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason
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Siri and I have been through a lot together. Some people might think we have an unhealthy relationship, but they don’t understand us. Sure, we spend every waking moment together, I feel completely lost when she’s not around, and one time, a guy broke up with me because I never stopped staring at her. But she’s really up-to-date on current events—and also always knows where my friends are.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Constantly carrying around a smartphone is basically a requirement for being a New Yorker at this point: According to a research report by eMarketer, we spend an average of three hours per day staring at our tiny screens, an 11 percent jump from 2014. So when I was challenged to spend a week without my other half, I thought it would be a tiresome trudge through a retro world of phone books and plans I couldn’t flake on. What surprised me was just how freeing it felt. Turns out, my relationship with Siri may be more dysfunctional than I thought. Here’s what I learned.

Meeting people ain’t easy

Before powering down for seven days, I send one final text telling friends to meet me at 4:30pm at Bushwick bar the Rookery. The message feels something like a blood oath. (“I will NOT have a phone. THERE IS NO PLAN B.”) Now I’m free—I guess—so I decide to catch a flick and emerge from my matinee of Crimson Peak feeling eerily similar to Mia Wasikowska’s character: a much more vulnerable person. In the lobby, I have a brief moment of panic, realizing I have no idea what time it is. (Life sans Siri, I find, is full of surprises—a bit more on that later.) I luckily find a clock in the lobby. It’s 4 o’clock. After taking the L train to the Jefferson stop, I emerge onto the street, and it hits me that I have no idea where the bar is. I stop a kind soul who points me in the right direction. Thank you, IRL Google Map with a man bun. When I show up 20 minutes late, I see a group of familiar faces in the corner. “You made it!” they shout. “I know! Surprise!” Over drinks, my friends refer to my phoneless adventure as a detox, but I prefer the term “reverse Rumspringa.” It sounds more exciting.

Pay phones are still a thing

I haven’t used a pay phone since I was a kid and have no clue where to find one. I need to make a call and expect to go on a Zelda-like quest. Then I run into one right outside my building. “Where did that come from?” I mutter. I put in a quarter, ready to call my mom—’90s style—in Michigan. (I’m also supposed to call my friend Emily but realize I haven’t a clue what her digits are. Sorry, Emily!) “You got this,” I tell myself. I mean, how hard can it be to use one of these things? People do it in movies all the time. I distinctly remember John Cusack doing it multiple times—in the rain, no less. I put in my quarter and dial. The machine asks for another quarter, which I don’t have, so I pull the lever to make it return my change. It doesn’t. After a quick trip to a bodega to break a single, I put in two quarters and dial. Silence. I pull the lever to return my quarters. Nothing. I dial again. “Please insert two quarters,” demands the robot. I put in two more. Silence. I slowly back away from the machine and then leave. Next time, Mom.

Commuting to work is less stressful

One of the first things I realize about doing a story on not having a cell phone is that I don’t have anywhere to jot down notes about not having a cell phone. So I get into the habit of carrying around a pencil and paper. I feel like Harriet the Spy if Harriet only spied on her constantly fluctuating emotions. I usually spend my morning commute frantically getting up-to-date on the day’s news before a morning meeting, in which we discuss…the day’s news. This morning, I simply write down two pitches I got off my laptop on a piece of paper before leaving the house and then enjoy a serene subway ride to the office. I’m literally smiling at my fellow riders. RELAXED, I write on my pad. I imagine this must be what it’s like to go to work in L.A.

“My friends refer to my phoneless adventure as a detox, but I prefer the term 'reverse Rumspringa.'”

Illustration: Leonard Peng

Sleeping’s easier

You’ve probably heard people sleep better if they don’t fool around with their cell phones— or computers or TVs or whatever —before bed. I’m here to tell you that is absolutely true. Instead of scrolling through an endless Twitter feed or falling into a Wikipedia hole about Victorian serial killers, I simply pour myself a glass of water and make a little dent in The Girl on the Train. Not only am I able to fall asleep easier, but I also snooze through the entire night without waking up once. Usually, my eyes pop open at least twice—more if I spend the night before reading about Victorian serial killers. The only downside is this is the time I crave my cell phone the most. If this really is a detox, then now is definitely when I feel most like an addict.

Working out isn’t fun when you’re just…working out

I normally wouldn’t even consider going to the gym without my iPhone. The idea of running without listening to music or lifting weights without Terry Gross to keep me pumped (yes, her compelling empathy is the only thing powerful enough to distract me from the monotony of lifting) is a deal-breaker. I’m definitely more present during my sweat-a-thon at Crunch. But working out, essentially, sucks—and I dearly miss my iPhone distractions. I spend a lot of the time staring at the wall and imagining everyone else in the gym as muppets. I will say I’m surprisingly able to run farther and faster without listening to music or checking my email. But omigod, so boring.

Checking out a new spot is a drag

I decide to head up to Levain Bakery to buy a box of chocolate walnut cookies for my roommate. Yeah, I’m a nice guy. So I break out my handy pad and write down the address and cross streets of the sweets spot. I walk past it twice and then go in. (Being mildly lost at all times is an experience I’m getting used to.) I find the cookies and spot some scones I think my roommate would also like. Suddenly, I feel inexplicably anxious that I can’t text him to ask. My lack-of-a-cell paranoia continues during my long commute home. As I stand in the middle of the C train car, holding my backpack with both hands like a well-behaved school kid, I feel a creeping sensation of existential FOMO. Everyone else in the subway car is completely engrossed by the small screens in their hands. No one even notices the punny storage container ads on the walls. (And they were actually funny! Wake up, sheeple!)

Drinking alone feels more pathetic

Day seven. I’ve almost made it. Heading to Greenpoint watering hole Keg & Lantern for a celebratory pint, I encounter a sight on the train platform that makes my heart sink. A hipster hobo banjo band is playing across the platform. As their suspenders snap to the beat, I wonder, Where are you when I really need you, Instagram? #Hipsterhobobanjoband has to get at least 50 likes, right? But anyway. This is what I’m dreading the most. I bring a book, hoping to sit at the bar and read. What I don’t expect is the place to be packed because of the Mets game. So instead, I end up standing awkwardly and letting out “wooos” two seconds after everyone else. When my boyfriend shows up 20 minutes later with my phone, I’m relieved to have it back but also already wistful. I look around at everyone not watching the game, and they’re all on their phones. No one is talking to each other. There could be an almost-funny storage-container ad on the wall, and no one would let out a restrained chortle. Cell phones may be necessary for modern-day survival, but I realize mine might be more of a distraction from the world around me than I had thought. I’m not ready to break up, but we could use some time apart.

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