Int. Herald Tribune   ;-)
Desperately seeking silence amid cell phone blather

By Geneva Overholser (Washington)

Paris, Thursday, March 2, 2000

Dear Bill,

I am the poor schlump who was sitting behind you the other day on the train from New York to Washington, and I have something to tell you:

Please hush.

You started with the cell phone the minute you sat down. You couldn't wait, could you, Bill, until we had pulled out, when the sounds of the train might at least cushion your endless chatter.

No, deep under Pennsylvania Station, before we had moved an inch, everyone within four rows knew all about your work life.

We heard about your meeting downtown, and how you walked to the station, and how tired you were. We learned how many voice mail messages you had. We heard how everyone at the meeting had been really effective, except for that one guy - the slight fellow - who just didn't know how to give a good presentation.

We heard you tell Kevin about how you "misspoke on the numbers" on the big project you are all tied up with. We were privy to your views about why the market is dropping, and also about the extraordinarily nice weather in New York.

There you sat, seat back reclined, manicured hand resting palm up against your coifed head, blathering on and on. "I'm on the train," you would note with every new caller. "Sorry to bother you," you would say. (What about us?)

Endlessly we would get the rundown - about how your colleagues had taken the earlier train, but you were on the 3 P.M. Metroliner, about the big project (a $550 million deal!). Once, for variety, you dialed the wrong number and asked to be transferred: 45814, you wanted.

"Hey, I got your voice mail," you would begin jauntily, and we would brace for another iteration. Some aspect of the big deal was stuck, and you had suggestions. Take the numbers and divide each one by these other numbers, and, "If you don't mind, just to get the ball rolling, call Bruno. Just to get somebody on it." Finally you would end with a jaunty "All right, well, I'll letcha go" - and oh how we would yearn for our own release.

Once in a while, trying to read the paper, switching to lighter and lighter subjects yet still unable to tune you out, I would clear my throat, shift in my chair, even groan just audibly. What a ridiculously wasted effort this was, Bill. Has anyone ever been less mindful of his surroundings?

I considered giving you some compelling reading material. But Bill, in all honesty, you don't sound like the kind of guy who would find compelling reading material very compelling. I mean, a chump who spends an entire three-hour train ride returning voice mail?

Sometimes you would be silent for a moment. We would all hold our breath. Could this be the end? But no, Bill, you were just looking up another number. As you began again, all of us around you exchanged more pained looks. You were more offensive by far than the pungent smell of the baloney sandwich someone had brought on board, more bothersome than the beeping of the laptop with dying batteries next to me, more intrusive than the banging of the loose overhead rack.

Someone braying ceaselessly into his cell phone is more vexing than any noisy conversation. All that loud talk with no answer seems to compel the engagement of those around you.

I love the Metroliner, Bill. I love the space, and the scenery and the swaying walk to the snack car. I love departing from the heart of one great city and coming into the heart of another. And I love the time to read. I love all this so much, Bill, that I thought that nothing could drive me to the shuttle. But you just might.

(Note to Amtrak: Please consider an isolation car, like those glass-enclosed smoking pens in airports. Herd all the chattering cell phoners into one rectangle of incessant cacophony and spare the rest of us.)

Bill, I would add only this: We know who you are. You and Kevin and Bruno and the slight fellow, and the walk and the stock market and the big deal. We know all about you.


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