Life before cellphones: The barely believable after-work activities of young people in 2002

Recently, a number of my younger coworkers expressed shock that I was able to complete a master’s degree while I held a full-time job. It was easy: I worked at a literary agency during the day, I got off work at 5 p.m., and I studied at night. The key was that this was just after the turn of the millennium. “But what would you do when you had work emails?” these coworkers asked. “I didn’t get work emails,” I said. “I barely had the internet in my apartment.”

The very idea that, once work hours were over, no one could get hold of you—via email, text, Slack, whatever—is completely alien to contemporary young people, who never let their cellphones leave their hands. Yes, it’s because they’re addicted, but it’s also because we’re all expected by bosses, co-workers, and friends to be online and available pretty much every time of day. Especially since the pandemic and the growth of remote work, job responsibilities seem to be ever-expanding to fill all available time. One survey suggests that U.S. workers were logged into their employers’ networks 11 hours a day in 2021, as opposed to 8 hours a day before the pandemic. A survey of U.K. workers found a majority said they wished their employers would restrict work communication to work hours only. Billiards Table

Life before cellphones: The barely believable after-work activities of young people in 2002

Could things really have been so different just a few short decades ago? Was the last era before smartphones the last time anyone had any fun? Can a modern young person ever understand what it was like to simply watch whatever happened to be on television? To explain what life was like in the days of yore, I interviewed a number of people who are (roughly) my age about what it was like being (about) 27 in (around) 2002. These are their stories.

Eric (IT and retail, Hickory, NC): I would wake up as close as possible to the time I had to leave for work.

Rebecca (magazine writer, New York City): There were definitely no emails from bosses or internet checks before going into the office. We didn’t get the internet in our apartment until 2004.

Dan (literary agency assistant, New York City): It wasn’t like there was work I was worried about missing. No one would send you an email at night.

Matt (public relations, Washington, D.C.): I would take the metro in from Arlington, and I would read the newspaper. From the Post, the front section and style section; from the Times, the front and business sections, because sports was in the back of business.

Jordana (legal assistant, New York City): My boss gave me a PalmPilot as a bonus instead of money. I rode the subway to work and played Dope Wars on my PalmPilot. I think I only ever used that PalmPilot to play Dope Wars.

Rebecca: I rode the subway, reading a novel and listening to my Discman. Wilco, probably.

Dan: Once I accidentally hit the “repeat” button on my Discman. I was reading a book or something and I didn’t notice that I had listened to “Fell In Love With a Girl” 15 times in a row.

Mac (bank data entry, New York City): There was one year where everyone on the train had She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.

Matt: Then when I got to my office, we’d all sit on barstools in the kitchen, passing back and forth newspapers and reading interesting stories out loud. It was like social media, I guess.

Mac: I had to be at work at 8:30. Sean would call me when he was stumbling home drunk at 5:30 in the morning in LA. So I’d be at my desk, taking a call from a rancidly drunk Sean.

Sean (recording engineer, Los Angeles): I do just remember being on the phone a lot. I remember calling a friend at work one time, and he was like, “What do you need?” And I was like, “I just wanted to see what you were up to.” And he was like, “I’m at work.”

Mac: All my friends had my desk phone number. They used to do impressions of the voice I used when I answered my work phone. [Very professional voice:] “The Dime, this is Mac.” “It’s James.” [Regular voice:] “Oh hey dude, what’s up.”

Nicole (public defender, New York City): You would not call someone’s cellphone during the workday. Calling someone on their cell in that era was like how our parents thought about long-distance—only if it’s very important.

Dan: If you called someone at work on their cellphone, maybe it would ring in a meeting or something. That would be terrible. Cellphones were for emergencies, or for calling people when you were drunk.

Matt: You had to pay by the incoming call on your cellphone. Once someone called me and it was the wrong number and everyone laughed, like, “That just cost you a buck!”

Sally (law clerk, Baltimore): During the day, you’d organize that night’s plans over the phone.

Matt: I had a friend who used to call my office and get the receptionist. The receptionist would put her through to me, and we’d talk about plans. The receptionist started calling her my girlfriend six months before we were officially dating.

Jordana: Our receptionist knew all my friends. She never got their names right, but she got their names wrong the same way each time.

Sally: Or you’d email to make plans. I didn’t have a personal email address. You used your work email, which was stupid.

Mac: It’s really astounding. I just didn’t think along those lines, that there’s certain things you shouldn’t send from your work email.

Eric: I was working at a store called Media Play, which had four quadrants of stuff: DVDs, books, music, and computer stuff. I worked in the music quadrant. Friends would just come by the store and hang out. There was a regular group that would come in and sit on couches and play Magic: The Gathering. Then we’d make ad hoc plans like, “Oh, let’s go to IHOP tonight.”

Sean: Most of my time was spent trying to get to FedEx before it closed because we had to ship a sound edit across the country. The recording session would end at 5 and the FedEx place closed at 5:30. I’d pack a small hard drive up and rush over to FedEx. There was so much physical stuff going around the country all the time.

Jordana: My day ended at 4.

Mac: I left at 5:30 without fail. I worked there for years and I was never asked to stay late once.

Rebecca: Once a month we’d be closing an issue so we’d stay late and expense dinner and a car service home. Other than that we’d be out every day by 5:30 or 6.

Nicole: I never took work home. Sometimes I had a lot to do, so I would just stay late until it was finished.

Dan: I would sometimes stay late to use the good internet at the office. They had DSL.

Nicole: In this era, I was doing a lot of swing dancing—in the post-Gap-ad swing dance fervor. So sometimes I had a swing dance lesson, or we’d go to Swing 46.

Dan: I always had improv class, or improv practice, or an improv show.

Rebecca: I would go to street hockey practice or scrimmaging. That was a social event, too, besides being exercise. Everyone dated one another there.

Sean: We really would just drive to someone’s house and see what they were doing. You and a couple people would be in the car and you’d be like, “Let’s go by Brian and Mike’s.”

Matt: Either we’d made plans or we’d just go to the same few places. During the week it was the Front Page in Dupont and GG Flips, or on Thursdays or Fridays it was Lulu’s on M Street. Someone I knew would be there.

Sean: There were only six places you’d go and someone would be there. Birds and La Poubelle, across from the Scientology Celebrity Centre. And then like four other places.

Sally: You had to plan more ahead and hope it worked out. People didn’t flake as much. There’s no option to text someone 10 minutes before, because you knew they were waiting for you.

Dan: Even if you didn’t feel like it, you just showed up. If you didn’t show up, people would stop inviting you out. And then you would have fun! Or maybe it would suck, but next time would be fun.

Matt: You’d be late or they’d be late and you’d just talk to whoever was there. It was a whole skill, taking to a person you don’t know.

Nicole: I always carried a book or the New Yorker with me, because in a time before cellphones, no one could call you to tell you they were going to be late, so you had to have something to read.

Matt: And eventually your friend showed up, or they didn’t. “Oh wow, they must be having a really bad day at work that they couldn’t come out.”

Nicole: If someone didn’t show, you would sometimes have to call your home voicemail from a payphone, and put in your code, to see if they had left a message for you on your home phone.

Sally: Later on you would be like, “What happened?” And they told some fake story like “I fell asleep.” And you’d be like, “Whatever, I know you were hooking up, [name redacted].”

Mac: There were some nights where friends and I were trying to connect by leaving updates on each other’s home voicemail. “Mac, we’ve decided to move from this bar to that bar.”

Matt: I didn’t even have voicemail yet. I think I still had an answering machine, with a tape in it.

Sally: You’d have bar arguments about what was true or not, and you couldn’t resolve it immediately, because no one could check the internet! It would go on forever. For days.

Rebecca: We went to the movies a lot. Like as a pack, after work.

Sally: We went to see American Pie—a whole group of us! Eight or nine of us on a weekday. Who does that now?

Eric: You would call the movie theater’s number, and it would be like a machine that would tell you the showtimes. At one point the recording was a continuous loop where you’d just jump in wherever it was.

Mac: Moviefone! You’d call Moviefone and type in the theater code and it would list the names of the movies and the showtimes.

Nicole: But Moviefone didn’t sell tickets. So you’d have someone get there early to get tickets. Or if you really worried the movie would sell out, you would go to the theater box office at lunch.

Jordana: We went to the AMC 25 a lot. If you bought a ticket to an indie movie, that would be on the top floors, and then the movie you paid for was one that needed your dollars the most. And then you’d take the escalator down one floor and sneak into some other movie. I saw Cast Away, or parts of it, a couple of times that way.

Dan: We would just walk to a movie theater and whatever was starting next, that’s what we’d see. It seems impossible to imagine.

Mac: I would buy cheap digital watches and I would lose them, so I was constantly on the train or the street trying to subtly look at other people’s watches to see what time it was. Or sidling up to taxicabs and looking at the time on the dashboard and then telling them I didn’t want the cab. But I didn’t have a phone, so I never knew what time it was.

Eric: I got home a little on the early side, like 5. So I had to wait for everyone else to get home. I was living in a house with my friend Daryl. I specifically remember coming home and watching 7th Heaven. I didn’t like it. It was just that I came home at a regular time, and that show just seemed to be on, and I watched it because that’s what you do. You watch the shows that are on.

Nicole: My TV weighed 300 pounds and was easily as deep as it was wide.

Sally: I had a friend with HBO so I’d go over there on Sunday nights.

Rebecca: My one roommate’s stoner boyfriend would share a joint and we’d watch The Simpsons.

Nicole: I had a roommate and she had air conditioning in her bedroom and I didn’t so we would sit on her bed and watch Judge Judy reruns.

Mac: I would go over to some friends’ apartment on Thursday night and watch Must See TV. We would watch Friends, then talk through whatever NBC was showing at 8:30. We’d watch Seinfeld, then talk through the 9:30 show, then watch ER. We never turned the TV off. We just turned down the volume and fixed drinks.

Sean: We rented a ton of movies at Blockbuster. Whoever was currently King of Friends got to decide—you bring them a couple of movies, and they’d decide. Or sometimes you’d just watch a movie you already owned.

Jordana: My roommate had a collection of like 20 VHS tapes. We would play a game where Person 1 would choose 5 VHS cassettes, and then we’d all take turns removing one until we were left with the one we’d watch that night.

Sean: It’s no wonder I know every minute of Raising Arizona by heart.

Mac: I remember when my roommate bought a DVD player, and we watched American Pie 2, and we called it “DV-motherfuckin’-D” because it felt so ritzy.

Dan: I have vivid memories of falling asleep during a movie and waking up and the DVD menu would just be endlessly looping.

Matt: I had two giant metal towers of CDs and I had a five-CD changer. And you’d just hit shuffle and listen to music.

Eric: I didn’t have broadband. I was only living a little bit online. I was more likely to be playing, like, Civilization. And we had a PlayStation.

Dan: We played a trivia game called You Don’t Know Jack, just the two of us on our giant desktop computer.

Jordana: I played, like, computer solitaire and stuff.

Nicole: Did I use my computer at home … ? Oh! I remember— had a discussion forum called Mothers Who Think. It was a feminist-ish moms chat group. Even though I didn’t have kids yet, I was very active in that. On my honeymoon, I remember going to the business center at the resort so I could log on to my discussion forum and report about how the wedding had gone.

Mac: I just sent tons of emails to friends. I wrote these incredibly long emails. Email was still a toy instead of an unbearable burden.

Sean: Porn was really different then! You just had to take a shot with whatever you were downloading. So there would be, like, a folder, and they would say, this is whatever kind of photo. So you would set the computer to download and it would take 3 or 4 minutes to download a couple of files and you’d check back later. And it was very often really frustrating. Extremely disappointing.

Nicole: I always hated shopping. I would get the Lands End catalog and you could call them to order all the stuff. You would call Mary Ann in Wisconsin and you would read the item number, and she would ask you what color, what size. You could ask advice—“Does that run small?” or whatever.

Sally: Sometimes you’d do a 30, 45-minute call with someone. That’s a big part of your night.

Dan: You’d tuck the phone under your chin while you wandered the apartment.

Matt: If you couldn’t find the handset, you’d push a button on the base so it beeped.

Nicole: I was definitely a phone person. I could stay on the phone with a friend while we were both doing chores, whatever.

Sally: Now, if someone calls me on the phone, I’m like, “How violent of you to call me.”

Rebecca: My roommates and I had a ritual, at the end of the night, or when people came home from going out, of watching part of whatever Law and Order was on. We’d drink tea. Then we’d go to bed. Good ritual.

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Life before cellphones: The barely believable after-work activities of young people in 2002

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