CAMP Talk: Cell Phones in the Sand
|by Bill Sievert|
"What hath God wrought?" When Samuel Morse used those words to launch the world's first long-distance telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington in 1844, his message was more foreboding than he might have imagined. Morse's clever concept paved the way for the development of the telephone, an appliance initially intended for convenience but one that has come to control the way most of us lead our lives.
Some people don't realize they are being ruled by their telephones. They have such a love affair with their wireless cellular models that they take them every place they go. In my clothing store, I recently listened to a real estate agent close an important deal while he was in the fitting room trying on bikinis. Between grunts as he wriggled into tight fitting spandex, the realtor breathlessly reported to his client the results of a property's structural inspection and the willingness of the seller to make needed repairs.
"Do you think your buyer had any idea what you were doing while you were discussing the transaction?" I asked the customer when he came to the counter. The realtor laughed and said, "I've done worse things while conducting business on the phone."
I've overheard other customers, as they selected a shirt or belt, simultaneously change dinner reservations, check their offices for messages, even have heated arguments with their lovers or children.
It used to be that going shopping or to the beach was recreational "down time," a chance to unwind from the rigors of work and other pressing matters. Now we hear the demanding ringingor electronic beepingeverywhere. The folks with metal detectors who comb our sands for lost coins and jewelry often are coming away from the beach with about 75 cents and a new cell phone. More and more visitors are strolling along our streets with a greasy funnel cake in one hand, a slightly slippery phone in the other. I recently heard a woman give a step-by-step walking tour of the sights of Baltimore Avenue to someone back home: "Now I'm standing in front of this cute little store called Splash. There are pretty red roses out front; then there's a coffee shop and a caf and..." So much for sending a postcard.
One weekend this summer three different customers left their cell phones in my store, forcing me to create a lost phone box next to the carton of lost sunglasses. Strangely enough, only one of the losers ever retrieved his apparatus. It shouldn't be all that difficult to trace a lost phone. You simply punch up your number and find out where the answering person is located. But the owners of the other phones never bothered, perhaps not wanting to pay charges for an incoming call on their line.
Those people who can't stand to be without their phones might talk about the ease of staying in touch. But most of them are simply addicted to the technology and are secretly miserable about their constant need for a quick fix. Speed is the drug they require. Etiquette used to demand that a caller allow at least 10 rings before hanging up. A survey this summer has found that a majority of Americans now become aggravated if their call isn't answered on the first or second ring, and most hang up after the third.
That makes me aggravated because I'm usually in the middle of doing something when the phone rings, not sitting idly with my trigger finger poised to push a button on the portable. And why should I have to rush? About half the calls I receive are nuisances of some sort. Of course, most of us are bedeviled by the tactics of Tele-marketers (especially phone companies). At John's and my small business, we get lots of computer-generated callsthe kind that begin with a pause while someone in an office tower somewhere is notified that contact has been made with a potential sucker. Finally, a voice comes on the line and says, "May I speak to the officer in charge of your company's telecommunications services?"
"Let me refer to my corporate directory," I say. "Hold, please." Then I hang up.
We also are unfortunate enough to have a business listing one digit removed from that assigned to a new Blockbuster video store. Although I always answer, "Thanks for calling SPLASH," the video-shop callers usually go right ahead with their misguided agenda: "Do you have that movie of Jerry Springer's uncensored out takes?"
"No," I reply, "but I do have Prince Albert in a can." Younger callers don't seem to get the joke, but I can't resist. It reminds me of the kind of crank phone calls some of us used to make to anonymous telephone numbers when we were children, back when we actually had to dial numbers to annoy someone. (Want to see impatience? Ask a younger American today to try to use a dial telephone.)
Perhaps most vexing are the misdirected incoming FAX messages. You just can't argue with a ceaselessly bleeping FAX machine. Many of these machines are set on automatic redial so they continue to call back, buzzing into my ear at five-minute intervals. It doesn't help at all when I scream "This is not a FAX line!"
My FAX line hasn't been particularly helpful to me either. Throughout the summer, it has received a series of lengthy "confidential" updates intended for an investment group in North Carolina which is plotting to sue some property developers in Idaho who have failed to repay a $25-million loan.
"If this document falls into your hands by mistake," the message at the top of each page reads, "destroy it immediately and call..." Fall into my hands? You people sent them to me, and on one occasion you used up 35 sheets of my FAX paper. I ought to be suing you. But I haven't called the sending party. I may already know too much about its business for my own good. Perhaps I'll ring up Woodward or Bernstein.
Or, perhaps I'll simply stop using the phone entirely. That was my father's approach to our home phone during the dinner hour when I was a kid. My sister and I were never allowed to leap up in response to the ringing while our family was at the table. He said such interruptions weren't good for the digestive process. At the time, before answering machines had been invented, we both hated his policy. We would wolf down our food so we could dial up everybody we knew to find out what we might be missing. My father's attitude remained calm and rational. "Just relax," he would say. "If it's important, they'll call back."
In recent years, I not only have come to respect my father's policy but also have adopted it. John and I refuse to disrupt meals at home by answering the phone (which invariably rings just as we are taking our first bites). We won't respond to it during a good movie, a nap or at any other time in the bedroom. Our behavior may be anachronistic in an era when so many people spend more time on the telephone than in actually seeing one another. But we'll keep trying to return this most intrusive appliance to its proper place. Often as not, the proper place for a telephone receiver is firmly on its cradle.
Bill Sievert is co-owner of Splash, a clothing and accessories store on Baltimore Avenue, and the Program Director of CAMPsafe, CAMP Rehoboths AIDS education and prevention program.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 12, Aug. 27, 1999