by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
June 25, 2003
FOR WHOM THE CELL TOLLS
SEATTLE, Wash. -- I can't help it. I've written about cell phones before, but it seems to me that the ubiquity of this device is bound to affect our perception of language itself.
Take this incident. I am sitting in the library of my church last Sunday morning and reading Elaine Pagels' splendid book on the Gnostic Gospels when I hear a woman speaking softly. Since there is no one else in the library at that time (I always come for an hour of pious browsing before the service), I assume that she is speaking on a cell phone. But something in her manner of speaking gets my attention.
I glance up. Both her hands are on the book she is holding. She is talking...to herself! For reasons that I cannot readily explain, I find this oddly touching. It is so old-fashioned, so ... familiar.
Again. I am sitting on the rear deck watching a man pruning the Douglas fir in the rear of our house. On the plush grass of the house next door the neighbors' daughter, a girl of 14, is playing with her new puppy, a Golden Retriever aged about six weeks. She is making all the sounds that we deem appropriate when addressing a neonate of another species. My attention goes back to the tree.
Suddenly, it strikes me that she has begun to speak to the pup at a level far beyond its ability to comprehend. She is lying on her stomach, one hand cupping a cell phone to her ear and saying (not about the dog), "Yeah, he is cute. But be careful."
Another incident: I am in the gym trying out one of the new Nautilus machines. Not far away, on a similar machine, is a fellow athlete whom I will identify only as a professor at Udub (Seattlespeak for the U. of Wa.) "A prius?" he says (and he spells it out, so I am sure of it).
"Well, it is Latin, all right, though I can't imagine the context. Prius is a comparative, meaning earlier than, and so on. As in prius quam... . Where did you find this? On a licence plate? A car licence plate? Well, that explains it. It's a vanity plate. The car is probably a Prius, one of these new hybrids... ."
Absent the cell phone, the likelihood of hearing this on a gymnasium floor approaches zero.
A week or so back, we have our first really warm day of the Spring. I am sitting on a bench in a park overlooking the Puget Sound and watching an immense Norwegian cruise ship heading toward the ocean. It looks as if a large piece of Seattle has broken loose and is floating away.
A woman with a small child, whom I take to be her grandson, comes by. She sits on the other end of the bench and opens a copy of the Oxford American. Having never met another reader of this magazine, I am about to speak to her when she screams, "Jeremy!"
The tot, aged about three, has removed his shorts, squatted on the pathway, and left there what not even dogs are allowed to leave in a public park.
Out comes her cell phone and she gives orders to another Jeremy. Jeremy II arrives shortly in a white limo that is the image of the one in Don Delillo's latest novel Cosmopolis. He gets out, scoops the poop, bags it, and all three get into the monster car and drive away. Cell phone magic.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.