Let's shout cellphone chats from the rooftop

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 16, 2002

A joke that appeared here last spring has just been judged the funniest joke in southern Alberta.

The Calgary Sun announced October 12 that a washroom cellphone story making the rounds had just won that paper's best-joke contest. The prize-winning submission was made by Terri-Lynn Bradford, who heard the story in Edmonton.

As you may recall, however, our own Cochrane coffee companion Libby Graham shared with us her personalized version of the same story back in May.

Here's the joke as Libby told it:

"I was on my way back from Edmonton and decided to stop at a rest area in Red Deer. I went into the washroom, and as the first stall was occupied, I found my way to the second stall. I had just sat down when I heard a voice from the next stall say, 'Hi there, how is it going?'

"It is a little unusual to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a public washroom while you are in the bathroom stall. I didn't quite know what to say, so I finally said: 'Well, not bad....'

"Then the voice said: 'So, what are you doing?'

"I was starting to find this a bit weird, but I said: 'Well, I'm on my way back home to Cochrane.'

"Then I heard the person, all flustered, say: 'Look, I'll call you back. Every time I ask you a question, this idiot in the next stall keeps answering me!'"

So, a coffee-cup toast to Libby for recognizing a good story when she hears one.

And while we're still on the subject of cellphone use in washrooms and other public places, I came across a delightful column by Matt Richtel, Your Call, Everybody's Business, in the New York Times (Oct. 13).

"Telephones are allowing just about everyone to air his private business in public," Matt writes.

"So why stave off the inevitable? We need to tear down the last vestiges of decorum. Let us lay our lives bare. Let us proudly tell the world (and the people riding with us in the elevator): 'Yes, I have a cellphone. Yes, my wife wants me to bring home a quart of milk. And, yes, we secretly like to dress up like Santa and Mrs. Claus.'"

Matt has five suggestions for increasing cellphone openness:

1. Attach The Cellphone Bullhorn to your phone. With this device, Matt says, "everyone can hear a solid dose of your personal life, without straining his neck."

2. Use The Real-time Transcript, complete with printer, in stores. This will allow you to carry on cellphone conversations out of one side of your mouth while making purchases out of the other.

3. Install restaurant speakers at all tables to enable guests to hear more clearly the cellphone conversations at the other tables. The waiter would help you select the evening's fare, Matt explains: "We've got a lovely Chianti, I recommend the herb-roasted chicken, and the couple at Table 4 is discussing their personal finances."

4. The Boredom Check could be activated to warn you if your cellphone conversations aren't embarrassing enough for others to repeat around the water cooler. "You'll hear a sharp buzzing noise if you are discussing, say, the bond market," Matt explains. "Move on to a juicier topic and the sound will disappear."

5. And for those who recognize the importance of every incriminating private word they speak in a public place, they can back up their conversations in a legally-enforceable manner with The Personal E-mail Newsletter. The newsletters would go "to friends and employers when you send a note on a secret topic, forward a politically incorrect note or place a bet at an offshore gambling operation," Matt says.

As I thought over Matt's suggestions, it occurred to me that he had overlooked a closely-related annoyance: the cellphone that always seems to ring at the most inappropriate times – in theatres, churches and board meetings.

On the other hand, in view of the melodious ringtones that some cellphones have these days, maybe their sounding is not as inappropriate as first meets the ear. Consider the Enron or WorldCom executive attending their final board-of-directors meeting when from their pocket sounds the melancholy Beatles refrain: "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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