ET Don’t Phone Home (Cheap cell phones have made this much worse – NK 2008)

Contrary to widely-held belief, the purpose of language is not communication. Whatever part of the academy that is responsible for this sort of thing estimates that 85% of all conversations are about nothing at all; they seem to serve some inner human need to babble incessantly. That still leaves a respectable 15% for content. But if the phone is used, information exchange ceases entirely.

About 20 years ago, I made the only good investment in my lifelong battle with THE MARKET. I bought two life memberships in the United and American Airlines airport clubs. They cost around $250 each including a card for my wife. Today they run about $4500. These lounges offered a refuge from the chaos of the rest of the airport, but no longer. Because the main function of these clubs is to provide a place to wait for delayed flights (which means virtually every flight) telephones are strategically placed in them making it hard not to be forced to listen to your fellow travelers’ phone calls.

To use these phones, you need a credit card. Two decades of involuntary eavesdropping has proven that nobody makes a call from an airline club on his own dime or quarter or whatever. The boss always pays, or if the boss is making the call, it’s tax deductible as a business expense. Furthermore, the call has nothing to do with business, or life in general for that matter.

A typical conversation goes like this,“Hello, Mommy. This is Johnny.” Johnny is 50 years old and has a Ph.D. in Cosmology from Columbia. He’s using the Department of Physics’ credit card. “I’m in the airport, Mommy.” Of course he’s in the airport; he called her 30 minutes earlier just before he left home. “No, nothing’s wrong. My plane is late.” She knew that before he called. “Where am I going? Let me check.” He’s already told her five times, but she wasn’t listening. “Portland. Maine or Oregon? Wait let me check.” She really doesn’t care which Portland he’s going to, but can’t think of anything else to say. “How’s the weather? Same as where you are.” They live in the same town, which he won’t leave for another three hours because the second officer on the 727 he’s flying (who’s only on board because the union has successfully feather-bedded the plane) is stuck in the Portland he’s not going to. The conversation continues for another 90 minutes, afflicting everyone in earshot with breath-holding and urinary retention. But at least he doesn’t shout.

The captain of industry, on the other hand, wants everybody in the club to hear everything he says, so he bellows like a tobacco auctioneer.

“Hello, Wilma. Get me Peggy. Peggy, this is me. Did you check the hotel reservation? Four times. Is that enough for the Ritz? The Ritz, you know that’s where I always stay in Paris.” She knows that, of course. “Did you make the reservation for Friday at Tour D’Argent?” He’ll cancel it when he gets to Paris. “Did we get the crystal pitchers for the board meeting?” The meeting is not for two months, by which time he will have forgotten about the water delivery system. Everybody in the south end of the club is now bleeding from the ears. “Did Sulka send my ties? Did the laundry get the gravy off my cuffs? Did you get the tickets for the Bulls’ game?” He hates basketball. “Did you tell the White House I couldn’t make it?” Und so weiter. The only question he didn’t ask was whether Bayreuth wants him to sing Wotan in the next Ring cycle.

Until recently, however, it was possible to find a nook or corner in the club that was a few feet from a phone, but technology has sealed that escape route. I refer to the cellular phone. Because everybody’s got a credit card and because a cell phone is more expensive to use than the conventional variety, every au courant traveler has to have one. Thus, one cannot escape from the telephone unless you succeed in getting yourself arrested, whereupon you’ll be limited to one call. The airline clubs now have members speaking with excitement and volubility in every square foot of the place. The men’s room sounds like Fafner’s rumblings in his cave because of the conversations emanating from the stalls, which bounce off the tiles like acoustic pinballs. Adding to the pinball effects are the digital beeps coming from the Motorolas and Nokias which have become the new solitary sin.

When the airplane finally does decide to leave, you will be surrounded by phone-wielding passengers who are calling for the weather report or the time as they board the plane. When the aircraft takes off, cell phones are banned for the duration of the trip. But blessed relief is not at hand because the first thing you see as you sit down is a telephone, embedded in the back of the seat in front of you like a smirk. If you’re flying coach, there may be only one phone for three seats. This rationing often starts a food fight as passengers reach for the smarmy instrument, each intent on being the first to call his travel agent to find out how late the plane is likely to be. The airlines purposely provided only one phone for three passengers so that two would always have to listen to the third’s conversation. That the cost of making a call from an airplane is even more expensive than using a cell phone has made their use as irresistible as chocolate fudge to a dieter.

But when it comes to conspicuous cell phone consumption, no one can touch the masters of the seemingly useless, the Italians. A sweater tied around his neck by its sleeves, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Marcello purrs into the smallest cell phone yet constructed as the ferry leaves the pier in Naples at the start of its 45-minute trip to Capri. I haven’t a hint of what he and every other male on the boat is saying (cell phones seem to be a predominantly male preoccupation in voluptuous Italy), but it sounds wonderful. La lingua degli angeli.

Standing on the Piazza San Marco, surrounded by pigeons and tourists, the Grand Canal at my back, I can tell the Italians from the visitors by their multicolored telephones. I convince myself that they are all making assignations for the afternoon, giving meaning to their three-hour lunch breaks. What drives me mad in the U.S. sounds like a Rossini opera on the Latin peninsula. No one pays much attention to the words, one listens to the music. Since Americans will not give up their fatuous phones, life can only be made tolerable by teaching them Italian, as long as I don’t have to learn it.

Originally published:
Kurtzman NA: ET Don’t Phone Home. Lubbock Magazine (Mar):30-31, 1997.