Cell-phone insanity takes over

Kevin Cowherd

Cell phones free their users from constraints of sanity

June 29, 2000

SOMEDAY, WE may look back on this period in our country's history as the Age of Madness, a time when millions of people walked around with cell phones attached to their ears, and yet no one considered this particularly bizarre behavior.

In Safeway the other day, I watched a woman fingering a ripe cantaloupe shout into her Nokia: "How do you think that makes me feel, Stan?"

I couldn't hear Stan's answer. But whatever he said, it wasn't: "Babe, you're the greatest."

Because suddenly, the woman swore loudly. Then she began to cry.

Within seconds, big, fat tears were streaming down her cheeks, dripping onto the cantaloupes and staining their soft, dimpled rinds.

Taking all this in from over by the Bartlett pears, I thought: Stan, you pig. Now I can't go over and get a cantaloupe - on sale at two for $3, no less - because your girlfriend or wife or ex-wife is freaking out over something you said. Thanks a bunch, pal.

Me, I don't understand people who have private phone conversations in public, especially conversations of a wrenching, emotional nature.

Look, I don't even like to order pizza over the phone if I think someone else is listening.

But here we had a woman - in the middle of the produce section at Safeway, for God's sake! - loudly arguing with a man as if they were sitting around the kitchen table, a half-empty bottle of gin in front of them.

And what have we lost, as a society, when decent, law-abiding citizens have to skirt the cantaloupe display simply because someone is having a depressing phone conversation with a man named Stan?

The next morning, not 24 hours after the Safeway incident, there was more cell phone madness.

Bright and early, I went to play golf. A heavy fog had settled over the course, which is in a hilly section of Baltimore County.

The fairways and greens were shrouded in a thick, ghostly mist. Visibility was maybe 50 yards. We prepared to tee off anyway, because very often with this game, it's best not to see where you've hit your ball.

Often, it's best to simply let the fog obscure the general ugliness of your game.

As we stood on the first tee, a man who would be playing in the foursome behind us walked up.

"Do you have a cell phone?" he asked.

We shook our heads no.

"Because if you did," the man continued, "you could call my cell phone on each hole and let us know when it's safe to tee off. You know, so we don't hit up on you in this fog."

For several seconds, we just stared at him, looking for the tell-tale signs of insanity: the wild, unfocused eyes, foam flecking the corners of his mouth, that sort of thing.

But he seemed sane enough. Even more depressing, he seemed dead serious.

We were too stunned to say anything. So after a moment, he walked away muttering: "OK, it was just a thought."

Both these incidents left me rattled, of course, and fearing for the future of this great country. Then, just a day later, on the northbound side of the Jones Falls Expressway: another brush with lunacy.

It was 6:30 in the evening, the rush hour just about over and traffic was moving briskly.

Right past the Pepsi sign, I found myself in the middle lane, alongside a woman in a bone-white Toyota who was simultaneously driving, talking on her car phone and reading from a single sheet of paper, which she had balanced, rather precariously, against the steering wheel.

At first glance, the paper appeared to be a flier, but then I could see it was actually a take-out menu, apparently for a Chinese restaurant. Wonderful. Just that morning, I'd read in the paper about a new study that said as many as 8,000 accidents a day are caused by drivers focusing on newspapers, makeup, snacks, cell phones and other diversions, instead of the road.

And here, apparently, was the poster child for that study.

Suddenly, the woman's car veered into my lane, nearly sideswiping me.

With my usual catlike reflexes, I swerved into the left lane to avoid her, right into the path of a blue Dodge Durango, which was coming like it was the last lap of the Charlotte 400.

I hit the brakes. The Durango hit the brakes. In the next instant, the woman in the Toyota regained control of her car.

Swerving back into her lane, she waved cheerfully at me and mouthed: "Sorry."

Then she went back to talking on the phone and glancing down at the piece of paper on her steering wheel.

A mile or two up the road, the full realization hit me: I had almost been killed because some nitwit was trying to decide between the General Chou's chicken or the sesame noodles.

Tell me: How do you go on after something like that?

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