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Rock of Courtesy, Hard-Place of Technology

02/26/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

The scary thing about people talking on cellphones in their car is that they don't make eye-contact. They not only don't, they can't. Their eyes are always focused on some indistinct image from a Twilight-Zone encounter that you and I will never penetrate.

To put it another way, cellphone drivers not only hear voices, they act on what those voices say to them, and in any other situation that's a working definition of psychosis.

But we're caught in a cultural Catch-22 with these people. Let's say the woman ahead of you is working out some spectacularly complex stock transaction on her cellphone, and she has no idea that she's going only eleven or twelve miles an hour. You can't lay on the horn because this is Vermont, right, and yet you can't just meekly follow her at eleven miles an hour because it's just more aggravation than the human heart can endure. We're caught between the rock of courtesy and the hard-place of misguided technology.

I have a solution that's been working pretty well for me. I realized that it takes a technophile to catch a technophile, and so I loaded my own car for bear: last week I put in a cellphone, a portable fax machine/xerox copier, a global positioning system, radar detector, alpha wave generator and several other devices I'd prefer not to describe right now.

Later the same day, I'm in the fast lane on Route 89 headed to Norwich, and this candy-apple-red Ford Explorer in the lane beside me keeps veering crazily over into my lane. I look over at the guy and make the universal signal for Stop Veering Crazily, but the guy driving is deep into his cellphone.

So I go into my routine. I pick up my own cellphone and I get on the Internet and I type his license plate number into a website that lists most of his personal information: numbers, addresses, liens against his house, etc. One of the numbers is his cellphone, but he's on that, so all I can do is leave an indignant message on the voice mail, which I do. Then I call his house and leave another indignant message there, pointing out to his wife that upping the husband's insurance coverage just might be the way to go.

There's also a fax number, so I scrawl a message on this pad I've got suction-cupped to my windshield -- Stop Veering Crazily -- and then I feed this into my own portable fax, and sure enough in a second or two I see the guy in the Ford Explorer next to me glance down at his own portable fax, but his cellphone conversation is too intense and he makes the decision not to pick up the print-out.

This is really infuriating, so I dial the credit bureau and I put a lien on the guy's house. It's not like it's really going to help, but it makes me feel better. If I'm not in control of my own destiny, at least I'm in control of his, and that's the rock-bottom minimum definition of happiness in the opening days of the twenty-first century.

--Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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