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First Person

Not Just a Cell Phone; It Was a Call for Action

May 23, 1999|BRADY MacDONALD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heading my way, Cell Phony seemed determined to disrupt my peaceful lunchtime perusal of the day's news. Everything about his voice--the tone, the cadence--screamed cell phone. He was loud, obnoxious . . . and part of the suburban landscape, I figured.

Little did I know that the bar was about to be raised on the public annoyance meter.

Conversations come in a variety of levels: the funeral/wake whisper, the one-on-one candlelight coo, the handshake/how-ya-doin' hello, the over-the-jukebox-music barroom exclamation, the softball "Slide! Slide! Slide! Slide!" scream.

Each type has an appropriate place: The dugout yell doesn't work too well at the funeral parlor. And, yes, each person talks on the phone differently--there are cupped-hand conspirators, radio broadcast announcers, and everyone in between.

But there is a normal phone voice, which is typically louder than the average chat with a friend. That's why cell phone conversations stand out in a crowd--the volume and the fact that they're out of place.

The calls seem to come at the most inopportune times: while watching a game at the ballpark, during a concert, in the middle of a movie or, in this case, while I'm trying to enjoy my lunch.

*

Cell Phony sat down at the table next to me and continued talking, stuffing a sandwich into his mouth between words. My instincts tugged in two directions simultaneously: toward intrigue and toward repulsion. Can I dissect the conversation by listening to half of it? Do I really have to listen to this monotonous monologue?

A woman's voice jumped into the conversation--at that same cell phone level. They must be passing the phone back and forth, I figured, catching a glimpse of Cellulady out of the corner of my eye. Something about wedding plans, somebody marrying somebody, blahdy blahdy blah.

Then my ears really perked up.

Like a dispatcher on a police radio, a scratchy, disembodied voice responded over the cell phone.

As I took a bite of my cheese-steak sandwich, a spirited debate ensued: "He can't be marrying her," Cell Phony said. "Yes he is," Disembodied Voice replied. "Why would he do that?" Cellulady chimed in. "He barely knows her!" "Well," said Disembodied Voice, "they set a date." Whereupon Cellulady inquired: "Have they registered anywhere yet?"

A cordless speaker phone! What, I wondered, will they come up with next?! Speaker phones are the domain of corporate lawyers, government officials, pushy telemarketers--impersonal, soulless people. You never know how many people are listening on the other end. They publicize private conversation.

OK, I'm no Luddite. I have a cell phone; keep it in the car for emergencies, pull it out of the glove compartment if I'm going to need it. Got a laptop computer. Looking into a Palm Pilot to organize my schedule.

But walking down the street talking on a cell phone is kind of like making out in a movie theater. Get a room.

Speaker cell phones take it one step further, like making out in church.

Get a life.

*

The endless patter at the next table became too much. I folded up my paper to leave.

For a brief moment, I considered telling them off. How would they like it if I sat at their table, rattling on randomly as they tried to eat?

But I got up, threw away my trash and walked past the Cellular Couple, deciding against confrontation and heading to the parking lot.

Then, divine inspiration intervened.

I turned on my heel and walked straight over to them. Other diners on the outdoor patio stopped eating, heads rotating to watch what was about to unfold.

Rooting for class-action revenge.

The tiny cell phone was sitting between Cell Phony and Cellulady on the table. I leaned over, put my hands on my knees and spoke into the palm-sized device:

"You know," I said, "the only thing worse than cell phones are speaker phones, and the only thing worse than speaker phones are speaker cell phones."

Cellulady stared slack-jawed at me, sandwich halfway to her mouth. Cell Phony grabbed the phone like a little girl snatching a doll away from a playmate, clutching it to his chest.

"Who is that?!" asked Disembodied Voice.

"Pay no attention to him!" Cell Phony scowled. I turned and walked away.

The other diners applauded, cheered. "Thanks," one man said. "I wanted to do that."

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