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THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN CELL PHONE HELL

In his new book, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that there are more cell phones in use in China today than there are people in the United States.

If word gets out, that's sure to put a damper on China's tourism business.

Who would pay good money to visit a country where the air is even thicker with cell phone chatter than our own?

I don't mean to go all Unabomber here and deliver a Luddite rant against technology. There is nothing inherently wrong with wireless telephone communication.

I'm more interested in killing the messenger than the messaging device. The enemy is us. At least some of us.

Does anything tell more about the high-minded opinions that some people have of themselves than the way they inflict their cell phones upon others?

Phone boors will get their comeuppance when they leave this world, and it's not the pearly gates they'll be crowding.

When Judgment Day dawns, here are the five people we will meet in cell phone hell:

1. The Loud Talker: It's not so much the volume as it is the presumption that every private conversation is worth broadcasting to all within the sound of their voice. The LT turns a private chat into public performance art; we're the captive audience.

In John Cheever's short story "The Enormous Radio," a couple found their radio somehow picked up conversations from the other apartments in their building. At first they found the overheard dialogue to be intriguing, even addictive, but they soon grew weary and depressed by the sad melodramas of their neighbors' lives.

In 2005 we need no such contrivance to eavesdrop. Whether at the airport or in a bank line, we can count on an LT to bring us up to speed on the lives of whomever they are talking to. (And our despair is as palpable as that of Cheever's Jim and Irene Westcott.)

While sitting in an orthodontist's waiting room recently, I was treated to the Easter vacation plans of a young man speaking to a colleague. (Their cruise departed from Florida, for those of you scoring at home.) This waiting room was otherwise free of electronic distractions, but Vacation Boy ensured that none of us endured a minute of silent communing with our waiting-room magazines.

2. The Ring Tone Maestro: Cell phones don't merely ring anymore, they sound off with a personalized song or other noise downloaded from a Web site catering to people with too much free time and disposable income on their hands.

We know when a Ring Tone Maestro enters a room, because we hear his theme music.

Who needs a modest ring, or the silent "vibrate" setting, when you can set your phone to "rattle and hum" while serenading the surrounding seven square miles with a U2 song to prove your hipness?

Besides blaring his anthem into our personal space, the RTM customizes his phone tones according to whoever is calling. One ring is for his spouse or significant other, others for A-list and B-list friends.

We should be thankful we don't hear the ring on the other end when calling a friend's cell phone, lest we find out where we rate in their ring tone hit parade -- the "Hallelujah Chorus" or "I Get Along Without You Very Well."

3. The Updater: Do any of the following ring a bell?

* "Hi, I just wanted you to know I'm running 10 minutes late. There's a disabled vehicle on the right-hand shoulder of the westbound Kensington. There are rubber-necking delays, and I've got plenty of company due to the normal Monday morning rush, so I have to allow myself a little extra time this morning."

* "I'm caught in the Tim Hortons drive-through line, but I'll be at book club in five minutes. Feel free to fire up the decaf without me."

* "I'm in the grocery store, picking up butter. Do we use salted, lightly salted, salt-free or "I Can't Believe It's Not Salted?' "

The Updater is someone who calls, to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, just because she can.

The problem with these reports is that I have to drop what I'm doing and answer the phone to receive them. Just because the doughnut line is slow doesn't mean I need more updates than Donald Rumsfeld gets from his field commanders in Iraq.

A cousin of the Updater is:

4. The Optimizer: Haven't heard from your friend Ralph? Just wait until he's driving back from the sales conference in Albany and you will. There's something about an open stretch of highway that gives people an itchy dialing finger.

If you're home, you're fair game for the Optimizer, who calls youonlywhen he has time to kill.

Never mind that you are ironing your socks or painting your garage. You're expected to become somebody's plug-and-play entertainment.

Sometimes the Optimizer calls to kill five minutes after dropping off the kids at school. We're not worth premium time; the only time we hear their voice is when it's accompanied by the hum of highway noise.

Here's an idea, Optimizers: Try books on tape and leave the rest of us alone.

5. The Daily Debriefer: Then there is the person -- usually a spouse-type -- who slips the surly bonds of work and immediately phones home to share every detail of her day (the pronoun "her" is chosen completely at random) while driving home.

"How did today go? Do the kids have much homework? Did anything good come in the mail? Did you call back the floor guy?"

All seemingly harmless conversation fodder, but what is there left to talk about in person after every conversational bullet has been spent on the phone?

When I was coming of age in the pre-cellular 1970s, my mother went to work and would check in with us by phone at midday. My brothers and I termed this "the daily hassle call," in which we were held to account for our day's activities or lack thereof.

Thanks to cellular technology, the hassle call has been taken to the next level.

Perhaps we just need to harness the technology for good instead of evil. For example, if criminal suspects in police custody were forced to spend their one phone call hearing about their spouse's day rather than calling their lawyer, the crime rate would plunge.

But let's not discount the merits of a good lawyer. If anyone knows one specializing in divorce law, I may be in the market. Please leave a message on my cell.

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