An unforeseen hazard on electronic highway

November 21, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

He stood on the corner talking into a portable telephone.

A tweedy sort of guy, lean, dapper, with the kind of slightly graying hair that is considered distinguished.

I noticed him because I was in my car waiting for the light to change and he was near the curb.

As he talked, he nervously shuffled his feet, turned this way and that, and gazed up at the sky.

I idly wondered if he was working on a big business deal or setting up a power lunch. Could be. He wore the kind of well-cut duds you see in the windows of men's shops in downtown Chicago.

Or maybe he was talking to his lady friend -- probably a high-fashion model -- about dinner plans for that night. Or telling his wife that he'd be with clients and would be home late.

Whatever it was, it had to be important. You don't stand on a corner at 11 a.m. on a blustery day talking into a high-tech telephone if you're just calling the weather bureau.

The light turned green, and I moved slowly forward while glancing to my left to make sure no dawdlers were still crossing the street.

At that moment, I heard a slight thump and suddenly the tweedy guy was sprawled across -- of all places -- the hood of my car.

He was close enough so that we were almost face to face, separated only by the windshield. And he still had the phone jammed against his ear.

Suddenly I felt sick. After more than 40 years of driving in Chicago, the thing any motorist dreads had finally happened -- I hit someone.

My brain raced. I expected to see him fall backward to the pavement, blood oozing from his nose and ears, writhing in pain and screaming for a doctor. Or worse, a lawyer.

There would be the flashing blue and red lights of police cars and ambulances; a sympathetic crowd comforting the fallen victim and glaring at me; witnesses eagerly offering to tattle about my crazed driving; a long line of gapers slowing to look at the carnage; and cops giving me the fish eye while filling out long reports, reading me my rights, and letting me make that one phone call.

Then there would be the charges -- reckless this or negligent that. And a personal-injury lawsuit by a wily lawyer, ending with a pitiless jury coming in and awarding him my house, furniture, snow blower, pension and the blond's rings.

Total ruin. I'd spend my old age in alleys, digging around for tin cans to sell.

But he didn't fall to the pavement. He suddenly pushed himself backward with one arm, leaped nimbly onto the sidewalk, and started talking into the phone again.

I sat there for a few seconds with my jaw hanging open. He was now doing exactly what he had been doing before he landed on the hood of my car -- shuffling his feet, talking and looking off into the distance.

Then I realized what had really happened. I hadn't hit him, he hit me.

In that split second when I had glanced to the left, he apparently turned and -- without looking -- stepped off the curb while still jabbering on his phone, thus running into my car and landing on the hood.

I made my turn and pulled over. I wanted to be sure he wasn't going to go into some kind of delayed shock, making me a hit-and-run fugitive.

But he just went on talking. And I wondered what he could be saying. Then the light changed, and he strolled across the street, the phone still glued to his head.

That's what I call real concentration. And a fine example of a real goof, fine clothes and all.

If I hadn't felt relieved not to be on my way to a jail cell, I might have got out of the car and yelled: "Hey, you with the telephone, Mister Busy Big Deal of the Western World, I am going to sue you for negligent babbling, reckless meandering, and scaring me out of two months of my life."

On the other hand, he had done me a favor by exposing me to a new menace of the electronic information highway that I hadn't seen before -- the high-tech jabbering jaywalker.

I should have expected it after seeing golfers taking phone calls with one hand while putting with the other. And O.J. Simpson's lawyer being glared at by Judge Lance Ito because his portable phone kept going off in the courtroom.

Maybe we need a law that says that anyone who gets into an accident while yapping into a phone is guilty of mobile mopery.

And if that tweedy guy reads this and decides his back hurts and he's going to sue after all, forget it: I've already rounded up 10 witnesses who will swear you had a pint bottle of muscatel in your other hand.

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