Saturday, September 27, 2003

Two minutes hate, via cell phone

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According to an unofficial poll taken by me, with a margin of error of plus or minus three points, everybody in the world now has a cell phone.

My wife and I used to be the last people we knew without them, but no longer. Depending on your point of view, we have either caught up with the 21st century or crossed over to the Dark Side.

OK, so not everybody has a cell phone, but if you throw a stick in any direction odds are good that you’ll hit somebody yammering into one. Odds are excellent that the person you hit will be 14 or younger. In that case, don’t actually throw the stick.

I used to loathe people who have cell phones. Something about being able to call anybody at any time from anywhere makes cell phone users so smug.

“The only people who really need cell phones,” I often huffed to my long-suffering wife, “are doctors and drug dealers. Everybody else is playing dress-up.” She would nod graciously, pretending not to remember that I’d cracked the same lousy joke a week earlier.

My distaste began when regular people — not doctors or drug dealers — started driving like blithering idiots while talking on cell phones. Mostly, this bothers me because people who call other people from their cars usually do so to say, “I’ll be there in two minutes!”

Also, it’s irksome watching people seemingly blab to themselves with those “hands-free” wires they attach to cell phones now. When people talk to me now, I have to check their ears to make sure I’m the other half of their conversation. If people had any idea how nuts they look when they use those things, they’d pitch them into the nearest fireplace.

I also despise having to listening to other people’s cell phone conversations. For one thing, most people have nothing interesting to say (“Just calling to say what’s up!”). When they do, it’s too interesting — the telephonic equivalent of dropping your pants in public.

But I declared war on cell phones one day when my wife and I were in Boston, shopping at the Prudential Mall. At some point in the day, I had to answer a rather different call, so to speak, and found my way to the gentlemen’s facilities.

So there I was, washing my hands at the sink, when I heard a voice say, “Hello?”

I turned around and saw nobody — until I spied feet under one of the stall doors. I cringed, anticipating all kinds of misfortune.

“Are you there?” the voice said.

I cleared my throat, ready to ask the guy, as tentatively and plainly as possible, if he needed emergency assistance. In case it became necessary, I was preparing my standard lecture on how making small talk in the bathroom drives me up the wall. “Uh,” I said, “do you —”

“Hi!” he said. “What’s up?” And then he began having half a conversation. The other half, I realized, was on his cell phone — while he was on the john. He sounded like he was going to be hanging out for a while. I heard something splash.

I escaped and found my wife. I told her the whole ugly story, repeating my lousy joke about doctors and drug dealers, which she politely smirked at.

So I was home one day much later, stuffing an effigy of Alexander Graham Bell, when my wife sat me down and explained the situation rationally. She does a lot of freelance work, so she needs to be in contact with her clients even when she’s away from the house. And since both of us spend a lot of time on the road, we need to stay in touch.

“I think I need to get a cell phone,” she said.

Here’s what I said:

“Sure.”

Yeah, I’m not sure where I changed my mind, either, but it happened nonetheless. I became a cell phony.

Maybe it was idea of buying a new toy that converted me. Did I mention my cell phone flips open like a wicked cool James Bond gadget?

We signed the next two years of our lives away in a contract, promising to use our shiny new cell phones like good little doo-bees. Here’s an excerpt from that charming document: “We make no representations or warranties, express or implied, including, to the extent permitted by federal, state and local law, any implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose concerning your service or your wireless phone.”

I looked it up. “Merchantability” is in the dictionary, but just barely.

Believe me, I would like to report that I’m a responsible cell phone user. I can’t do that, though.

I had plans to use it for emergencies only. So why is the number for the China Star on President Avenue programmed into my speed dial? In case I have a boneless sparerib emergency?

I promised myself I wouldn’t make frivolous public phone calls. After I bought the cell phone — the same day, in fact — I called my wife with it. “Just calling to say hi!” I said. She was in the next room at the time.

And dig this: I’ve used the cell phone while on the john. Twice. The deep sense of shame I feel can’t be expressed with words.

I won’t reveal who was on the other end of the line, except that it was a she. She didn’t know where I was at the time, and still doesn’t — but I told her I’d be there in two minutes.

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