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A Car Phone Is Just Not the Way to Stay Connected

March 22, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I always know it's him, the second I pick up the phone. First there's the telltale hum, marked here and there with a rhythmic swoosh-baddabadda-swoosh. Then, in the stutter of silence before I hear his voice, a horn bleats its longing into the night and I know it is Biff (not his real name), calling me on his car phone. Because he always calls me on his car phone. Because he only calls me on his car phone.

And this makes me crazy.

I certainly understand the temptation to make end-of-the day personal calls from the car, while traveling perhaps from work to yoga class. One's car is usually more private than one's place of work, and everyone plays car catch-up once in a while. But as a sustained form of communication, car phones are highly imperfect. For one thing, the road noise causes you (the stationary participant) to shout in compensation, which doesn't always win you points in an office setting.

There is also the built-in suspense factor: At some point, you know the connection, thwarted by a tunnel or power lines or low-flying UFOs, will break off. That now-standard car-phone farewell--". . . wait, wait, I'm losing you . . ."--invariably comes just as you are recounting the grisly details of your recent breakup or conveying the time you need to be picked up from your outpatient surgery.

Not to mention the driving. While parenthetical additions to the narrative ("Watch out, you lunatic!") do lend a certain you-are-there authenticity, they can seem, to those of us at home or at our desks, a bit jarring. But a pleasure compared with conversations interrupted by "Omigod! Omigod!," screeching tires and humming silence.

Even on the off chance that your conversation survives the drive, it will be cut off mid-sentence upon the arrival of the driver at his or her destination--"Well, I'm here, talk to you later," which makes you feel really engaged, really close.

The fact is, among human beings in the 21st century, there exists a hierarchy of communication. Without delving into the substrata of physical intimacy, there is, in descending order, face-to-face talking, phone talking, letter writing, e-mailing, car-phone talking, faxing, deliberate phone message-leaving and deliberate message-leaving from a car phone.

You can judge the level of your importance in another's psyche by how they regularly contact you.

The problem lies in discrepancies--the person you keep inviting to lunch who leaves you after-hours phone messages explaining why this is not "doable." The colleague you stop in the hall who dismisses you with a hand-waving "e-mail me." The friend who only returns calls you place from home or work when he is in the car.

Then it's not so much "you've got mail" as it is "you've got issues."

I try to explain this to Biff, as he weaves around other car-phone-distracted drivers on the 10 Freeway. But he is apparently driving beside a 14-wheeler.

"What? What?" he asks with a sort of verbal squint through the roar of the traffic's boom. "I can't hear you at all. Can you e-mail me? I'm completely wired. Now I can get e-mail in the car."

Mary McNamara can be reached at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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