Saturday, February 23, 2013

Still Life With Robin: A Quick Detour into the Past

Photo by Thomas S. Mann

by Peggy Robin

A while ago, I found myself stuck in an odd 1980-ish state of technology. By that I mean I was without a cell phone. For all of about an hour, I felt vulnerable, cut off, uncertain of what I would do in an emergency. And all because I forgot to yank my cell phone from its charger as I set out to pick up my cousin, who was flying in to Dulles airport from Sydney, Australia.

I was almost fifteen minutes out when I realized that this otherwise constant companion had been left behind. I had also just hit some sort of obstacle in the road. I heard --and felt-- something shatter against my front passenger tire. I think it was a glass bottle but I never saw it clearly; it was around eight o'clock at night and the road was unlit.

My first thought was, whatever that was, I hope it hasn't popped the tire.

My second thought was, oh well, if it does go flat, I can always call for roadside assistance. And call my cousin and tell her I'll be delayed.

Then came a slightly panicky third thought, after I had glanced down at my bag on the seat beside me and noticed the empty pocket where the cell phone normally rested: How could I have done that? I'm never without my cell phone. And what would I do if the tire does go flat?

Then I started to recall what you had to do in the old days, the pre-cell-phone era, when you found yourself needing to pull over at night because of some trouble with the car. Without the ability to call anyone, you had to hope a kind stranger would come along, stop for you, and give you a lift to the nearest gas station. Not always a safe bet for a woman driving alone at night.

If it was just a flat, of course you could always just get out and start changing the tire on your own. So there you'd be out there on the side of the road, setting up a tinny little hand-jack to lift the ton-and-a-half weight of your car, and if you managed to do that correctly, the next task would be to try to remove each one of the machine-installed lug nuts using a manual lug wrench and whatever torque you can apply -- and all without someone else to hold the flashlight for you so you can see what the %$#* you're doing.

By the time I finished imagining this scenario I had driven another mile or two and it was mercifully clear that the tire was undamaged. I was reassured of that, not only because the car was still rolling along quite smoothly, but also because my simple, relatively low-tech Hyundai was equipped with a tire-pressure indicator in the dashboard, and it wasn't lit up with a warning glow. Tires these days are so much sturdier and hazard-resistant than they were 30 years ago, too. Another advance in technology.

So I made it to the airport in good shape and on time. My arrangement with my cousin was that she would text me when her plane had landed to coordinate the pickup.

She would have no way of knowing that her text had never reached me;  so I just positioned myself near the security point where passengers from that airline enter the terminal. When it seemed several planeloads of people had come through and she was not among them, I was starting to wonder if I needed another plan. What did we do back before we all had phones? You'd hear a voice come over the PA system: "Passenger Someone, please come to the white courtesy telephone." I was pretty sure, though, that the "white courtesy telephone" had gone the way of the rotary phone and the telegraph.

I was distracted with this thought when my cousin came up behind me, tapped me lightly on the shoulder, and then wrapped me in a hug. She had came in through another entryway but had figured out that I might be waiting at the wrong entry point.

On the way back, I borrowed her cell phone to alert other family members that we were happily on the way. And I was happy to be back in the cell-phone-connected world. I'll think of that the next time someone expresses nostalgia for those undeniably quieter but also undeniably more mishap-prone times.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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