Cellphone madness goes unanswered

They've added a fresh dimension to the comedy of life, mobile phones. Mainly because of their very mobility. You no longer have the slightest idea where the caller is. You can fool someone into thinking that you are still miles from home, when in fact you are walking through the front door.

Arriving in Paris by air a few years back, I couldn't see the man who was meeting me anywhere. But I had his cellphone number, and called him from mine.

"I'm standing by the main information desk," I said.

"So am I," he replied.

I looked up, and there, a yard or three away, was a man talking earnestly into a mobile phone. He looked up at the same time and saw me talking earnestly into mine....

At the same time, cellphones have developed the possible ways in which we can make ourselves look ridiculous - or at least behave strangely - in public places. To talk to someone as you stride along in a city center, you have to have a certain dramatic flair, or at least a lack of self-consciousness. You also cannot say anything that might be considered private. The world around you can listen in without the slightest hindrance.

One result of this is a welter of jokes at the expense of young men on trains who think nothing of phoning the office or home and announcing loudly that they are delayed 3-1/2 minutes but that no one need panic because of this startling eventuality. Self-importance gets a positive boost by the mobile phone.

Then there is the mobile-phone soft-shoe shuffle.

One evening, I had just arrived at my home airport and was waiting outside in the twilight for my wife to pick me up. I watched two young businessmen with mounting fascination. They were clearly traveling together and evidently from some unknown corner of Eastern Europe.

Each spoke on independent phones with great energy and at enormous length to someone somewhere (but not, I think, to each other).

As they did so, they walked without ceasing in circles, round and round, first one way then another, making figure eights one minute, zeroes the next, threes and sixes, twos and 20s. Ice dancing is a static art by comparison. A Jackson Pollock painting restfully classical. The flight of a bat predictable. It was as if they were performing some complexly choreographed open-air ritual.

Why didn't they stand still? They didn't stand still, of course, because they didn't have to. No longer in a booth or attached to a wire, phoning is now free-form.

I suspect they had no idea how many miles they walked, but it evidently seemed to them an essential part of the conversation.

Mobile phones have also - or at least mine has - given a new meaning to the concept "wrong number." I refer in particular to the saga of Mike.

With a conventional phone, it isn't hard to find the number of the person who just phoned you by mistake. But Mike has left recorded messages on my mobile sporadically for a period of two or three years now, and I have been unable to call him back to tell him I am not the person he thinks I am.

He is always terribly urgent. "Hi. It's Mike. Call me back as soon as you can. About tomorrow's shoot. See you."

I wouldn't have bothered if he had just been trying to sell me quadruple-glazed kitchen windows. But "tomorrow's shoot"? I really felt he needed to know he was reaching someone who hadn't the slightest notion of what he was talking about, and wasn't really into shoots either tomorrow or the next day.

And then at last he left his number on one message. Perhaps he was growing puzzled that I never turned up to one of his urgent shoots. So at last I could call back.

But it wasn't Mike who answered. It was a young lady, and she was at some London studios or other, and said Mike was not around, but that she would certainly apprise him of the situation.

I assumed that was an end to it.

It wasn't.

About a month ago Mike phoned, after several months' silence, and once again left a characteristically pressing message. And again he left his number.

My wife and I were in the car heading toward Edinburgh. She was driving, so I decided that I'd try one more time to reach Mike.

And this time, finally, it was Mike who answered.

Well, we sorted it all out ... I think. The technician he was trying to reach, it turned out, had a mobile phone number with only two digits different from my own. For some reason, some of Mike's calls to him were eccentrically routed to my number. Or that was Mike's theory.

He seemed an amiable chap, and was glad to have a word with me because he had wondered what might be happening. We rang off amiably, but with a mutual feeling that we would probably be glad never to speak to each other, or listen to our recorded messages, ever again. Some friendships are like that.

"I think we've solved it at last," I told my wife.

"I don't know why you bothered," she said. "He must be a horrible man, arranging all these shoots."

I looked at her.

I think she was thinking pheasants.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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