Yesterday we drove into Bend to buy some new cell phones. This seemingly innocent task turned into an excellent lesson in modern commerce, and maybe some other things, though hard lessons are difficult to sift from the early part of the second millennium–which is a kind of historical bouillabaisse.
The Verizon shop is located in the vaguely Soviet strip mall portion of Bend, Oregon, between a gas station, a Macy’s, and a bum camp on the parkway berm. Bend, on the whole, has lost much of the northwest charm it held even ten years ago. The homeless problem has become acute, and the politics are trending toward the fetishistic notions of governance espoused in Portland, Eugene, and Salem. The penchant for government-by-feel makes it fairly easy to predict where Bend will land in another ten years.
At any rate, we were being punished by the Gods after a decent snowstorm because, just out of Sisters, we got lodged behind a snowplow who wouldn’t accelerate past 35, and worse, a collection of stunt men and begoggled yahoos trying to pass the snowplow on both flanks. Americans are known throughout the world for their individual habits and that shows up nowhere better than on our highways. I said, joking, that the plow probably wouldn’t turn off until we made our parking space at Verizon, but in the event I was essentially correct. Several light years after leaving home we crawled through the hamlet of Tumalo where the snowplow finally eased over and we could get around him—just in time to hit the construction zone and the inevitable circus behaviors on display whenever bad weather and decision making intersect and drivers are required to adopt caution and a team-sport attitude. Alas, we made it to Verizon, and a parking lot full of slush.
We haven’t changed cell phones in many years. For one thing, I’m cheap, and would rather spend the money on travel or, egads, books. Cell phones just don’t triage very well. Years ago I dunked my phone in the Lower Deschutes River while fly-fishing, and that was the last time I replaced it. Since, I’ve been running a phone seven generations behind the flagship model, and my wife has been eeking life from a phone eight generations behind the curve. Her phone would barely stay on because, like old people, old phones have a hard time taking a charge. So we decided to get each other phones for Christmas, and then call it quits on the annual American potlatch blowout.
We were greeted at the door by a very nice young man with more tattoos on his face than evidence of wit or charm, which is the new standard for front-of-the-store types everywhere. He explained that they didn’t have the phones we wanted in stock—Black Friday had wiped them out, but he’d set us up with the next available associate who would present us with some options. Meantime, we huddled and decided we didn’t need the latest and greatest zampop masterblaster with the lazers and light shows and the ability to freeze time. We could, we decided, settle for a slightly lesser version which they had in-stock and available.
It’s fair to say that some of that was mere impatience. The last thing I wanted to do was wait for the Covid lockdowns in Xinjiang to end, the backlog of container ships in Long Beach to haul anchor, the railroad strikers to pour coal to their locomotives, and for the supply chain to finally barf up two cell phones in the musty stock room of the Bend Verizon. I was in the store, and I wanted the damn things now, because I sure didn’t want to have to drive back—what with the snowplows and the highway acrobats turning a milk-run into a stock car race at the county fair.
Eventually we sat down at the Apple-esque “Genius Bar” and were led into an utterly fascinating sermon delivered by a young man whose own cell phone, I noted, was emblazoned with his moniker: Chadillac. I was later to learn of Chadillac’s life with a sleeping bag and a skateboard, and hear tales of woe that his French bulldog wasn’t the skateboarder he thought he’d be. Also, I was a detective for a long time and I was putting together the clues, which included a strong odor of malt beer and meth sores on Chadillac’s arms. He was wearing long sleeves with an assortment of bangles but I’ve spent more time with tweakers than I care to remember and I can spot meth bugs with a very high degree of accuracy. There is no cream to stop the itch of meth bugs. They just have to get out.
Chadillac led us, heroically, through various plans and finger puzzles and Benedictine chants and loyalty points and rewards programs and trade-in options, until it was determined by the ancient formulas that only one of our phones was eligible to be repackaged and sent to an orphanage in Senegal. The other phone was merely ripe for e‑recycling, to be stripped of its rare-earth minerals—which felt like a win all the way around given the Chinese communist stranglehold on that concession, and also because Apple would be able to release one child-miner in the Congo. The pit-mine gauleiter would no longer wave a kalash in his face. He would be given a shirt. And he would be free to join any one of the local militias fighting Wagner mercenaries under the curious eyes of horny bonobos in the treetops. All of that, plus, I would get a higher resolution camera and more battery life in my personal tracking device. C’est voila, I would have done my bit for social justice and climate change and be emancipated from daily worry that I’m not doing enough about human trafficking and the pending planetary collapse.
What I realized, at some point during Chadillac’s circuitous recitation of plans and benefits and promotions (a dizzying array of continually changing numbers resembling the Arrivals and Departures board in the Munich Airport—and that would one day end up as my actual bill) was that the cell phone companies have us by the balls. I was trying to imagine what one accessory, even a few years ago, I could not have lived without. The best I could come up with was shoes. It’s possible to live without shoes, and many do, but they usually start that from birth and after a while their feet actually become shoes. A bushman in the kalihari has shoe-feet. Rullman of the Cascades requires boots or, at the very least, serviceable sneakers. I also realized that rather than trying earnestly to suck the marrow out of the old phones, to get our money’s worth so to speak, we had been fools to keep them in service. The dynamic has changed. We are, possibly, the last generation of Americans who believe in fixing the toaster instead of buying a new one, but that is no longer the model. It isn’t even wise.
Where have I been?
Chadillac was also trying to push an insurance plan on us which blew up like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst-Maxfield when a woman at the other end of the genius table was informed her insurance plan wouldn’t actually provide any insurance on her damaged phone. The deductible was the price of a new phone. I was doing field-work now and tuned in to that conversation eagerly. I gradually took her side of the argument as the story unfolded and Chadillac kept droning on about his collection of dogs in my other ear. Rightly, it seemed to me, the woman was peeved, and told several people in succession to suck her dick—which is now something women say out loud and in public.
The cell phone, we should all admit, is essentially a dopamine brick and virtually all of us are strung out on the thing. And the cell phone companies–the manufacturers and the service providers–operate on the same principle as drug cartels—which are businesses after all. Cell phone companies and cartels alike keep changing up their product: the Samsung Universe, the iPhone Pro Max, Rainbow Meth, and Fentanyl Skittles. What concerns me is that the device has become so embedded in our lives that we are now essentially slaves to it, and whatever controls and incentives the pushers decide on whenever the Heads of the Five Families have a luncheon. The idea is to trade in your phone every three years or face sudden catastrophic obsolescence.
I would anticipate, with the big changeover into EVs, we will see a similar scheme emerge from the car companies. Soon, cars will run just like phones–on apps and batteries–but almost nobody talks about the cost of replacing an EV battery. I’ve seen one confirmed horror story, and it turns out that replacing the battery in your EV is the equivalent of buying an entirely new car. But with your new EV you will have pumped a solid year back into the life of Mother Earth, you sweetheart you.
Meantime, Chadillac was late for lunch and he was replaced mid-transaction by a man my wife smartly dubbed Pigeon Ass. That was an inside-joke born from our driving adventure earlier in the day, but landed perfectly on the humorless automaton who replaced a clearly jonezing–but at least entertaining–Chadillac. Pigeon Ass had insisted Chadillac take his lunch and five minutes later Chadillac was pinballing around the store with no clear destination or mission and Pigeon Ass remarked that “he’s defeating the whole point of going to lunch.”
Pigeon Ass carried a demeanor of competence, or at least the ability to articulate a linear narrative, which naturally led us to conclude he might be a store manager. But we learned shortly that he was in charge of nothing and rather had settled into that gel-filled vat common to millennials—the snarky associate subaltern. Pigeon Ass probably has great sales numbers, I’ll give him that, but this can only be a result of competence with technology. It decidedly does not derive from his bedside manner. In other words, Pigeon Ass is not the total salesman package one imagines from the oh-so-groovy ad campaigns. Shocking.
We were in the final stages of “the transfer”—where one phone pours its brain into the other phone—when I began to like something about Pigeon Ass. It occurred to me that he was not fully converted. Something in him was aware of the shill. I can respect this because it isn’t difficult to envision the countless corporate hours spent dreaming up the Verizon experience—from the genius bar to conceptions of the ultimate customer seduction and baptism. This would require test runs in a mock-up store, test audiences, redesign, consultation, the entire bag of marketing tricks meant to enforce the Verizon liturgy. But Pigeon Ass wasn’t buying it. The vibe was clear: the human race is comprised of idiots and all of these idiots are roadblocks to the path I, St. Pigeon Ass of Bend, Oregon, had imagined: flying into space on a rocket with my name emblazoned on the side.
The other problem, during “the transfer”–which one supposes is meant to be a kind of holy communion after which we discover new depths of faith and devotion to the holy phone–was that we were faltering in our ability to remember the many hundreds of passwords required to navigate modern daily life. So, because we were unable to properly recite from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and thus properly conclude the ceremony as derived, Pigeon Ass the Elder was clearly done with us.
Also, I was getting hungry, which at least offered a lesson in fundamental requirements. Unlike Chadillac, when offered a food break, I take them—full frontal assault. But I was perversely happy about being hungry because it was a distraction from the phone business, a thing that is disturbing on a spiritual level and also manages to be simultaneously enraging and stultifying. This business of buying a new cell phone leaves me feeling exactly as I do after every State of the Union address: as though I’ve just downed an entire glass of rancid milk.
At one point in the final stages of “the transfer” Pigeon Ass mentioned, quite matter of fact, and without expecting agreement or reply: “It has stopped snowing.”
We spent a total of four hours in the store getting “upgraded”. But in the interim we probably saved a Congolese child from digging for minerals with his bare hands, and a pedo in Senegal will finally have his iPhone 7. And, of course, we got a short course in the joys of modern commerce. But most importantly, when it was finally over, we went out for a burger and a beer in our gigantic diesel pickup to show–if nothing else–our passionate support for what remains of the beef and brewery industries.