Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was about 15 minutes into his reflections when the disturbance began.
”Chirp, chirp, chirp.”
“Chirp, chirp, chirp.”
Scalia’s recent speech to the American-Swiss Foundation on how federalism protects liberty was marred by a cell phone.
“Chirp, chirp, chirp.”
After four rings, a woman excavated the offending device from her purse. As people at three tables scowled at her, she chatted on her phone for nearly a minute. What better time to catch up with acquaintances than during an address by an associate justice of the Supreme Court. As the wife of a foreign ambassador to the United Nations, this woman created a minor international incident.
All I want for Christmas is for cell phones to vanish. Hailed as the greatest communications tool since the smoke signal, these shrill little things transform otherwise well-mannered people into boors and give the self-absorbed even grander platforms from which to abuse others.
While introducing a speaker to an Atlanta audience, the president of a Republican group’s cell phone went off. He actually stopped reciting the VIP’s credentials, answered his phone and promised to call back. Three minutes later, as the honoree spoke to the crowd, the emcee’s phone rang again. So, he left the dais, and stood a few feet away, talking into it for several minutes. The listeners’ attention was divided between the lecturer and his host.
One of my best friends was unfailingly polite until he bought a cell phone. Not long ago, I met him in my lobby on our way to a function. Already on his phone, he continued his discussion as we walked up the street. Two blocks later, he finally said hello to me. Days later, he picked me up in a cab and did the same thing before recognizing his rudeness and hanging up.
Four of us played hooky one summer afternoon to celebrate this same pal’s birthday. Seated beside me, one of our crew called several friends and her father to announce that she was at Yankee Stadium. Then she hauled her Verizon bill from her purse and rang customer service to dispute some phone charges. I finally asked her to muzzle the damn thing off before she ruined our day off.
Men have stood beside me at urinals, wirelessly yammering away. Cell phones have disrupted movies and even a funeral I attended.
Cellular talk is the linguistic equivalent of cigarette smoke. Just as an exhaled puff of someone else’s Marlboro drifts into your nose with or without an invitation, everyone else’s issues now float obnoxiously into your ears.
One man last summer stank up a busy street corner with details of a bachelor party he attended a few nights earlier. His cellular conversation would have curled Howard Stern’s hair. While on an Amtrak train between Philadelphia and New York City, a businessman loudly detailed his company’s marketing strategies, conference plans, and other sensitive matters. I finally handed him a piece of paper on which I had bullet-pointed his statements. “You’re lucky,” I said, “that I don’t work for a rival company.”
As a native Angeleno who is now a New Yorker, one of the things I love about living here is the constant human interaction on Manhattan’s sidewalks. Glancing eyes meet. Strangers comment to each other about unusual phenomena in the streets. Pedestrians gasp in unison at spectacular near-collisions between bikes and taxis. Los Angeles lacks such contact. Nobody walks in L.A., but, more importantly, the windshields in front of drivers’ faces remain there mentally even after they leave their cars.
Cell phones similarly have begun to isolate New Yorkers from each other. Pedestrians now traverse Gotham’s avenues in their own private, metaphorical phone booths, blissfully disconnected from their neighbors and fellow citizens.
Cell phones are really high-tech leashes. They prevent their owners from escaping the bonds of duty, even briefly. When I am out seeing friends and loved ones, I don’t want interruptions from others — professional or otherwise. They have their time and place, and get my full attention and consideration when I am working or relaxing at home.
As negligent mobile-phone users cause more traffic accidents, public safety may require restricting automotive cell phone use to hands-free models. That aside, there is little that can be done about these things in a free society. Nonetheless, I am begging Santa Claus to gather these infernal, shrieking contraptions — along with bathroom hand blowers — and whisk them permanently to the North Pole.