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Easy call: Columnists don't need cell phones

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000

As soon as I am dictator, and right after we pass the law making being a dirtbag a capital offense, we work on the one making it legal to bite anyone using a cell phone in public.

In the meantime, I think we can stop worrying about them causing brain tumors, or there couldn't possibly be as many yuppies around as there are.

I remember a time when a cell phone was a badge of importance. It meant you were someone so crucial to whatever enterprise in which you were involved that you couldn't possibly be out of touch for a moment.

When they first came out and were big, bulky things with a massive battery that you had to lug around, I thought they would be (and they still are) a good tool for reporters, who often have to be reached on short notice while they are out of the office.

The people who did our communications at the time had a slightly different take, and bought us big, bulky walkie-talkies that didn't work. When I complained, they told me that Dade City, where I live, was a radio dead space and they never would work, which made me (I asked a lot more questions back then) ask why they bought the walkie-talkies.

Pretty soon they took one of them away, and I asked whom I was supposed to talk to with just one walkie-talkie and they told me it was all right because they didn't work anyway.

Different people are in charge now.

But just about the time that cell phones became affordable and portable, I became a full-time columnist.

There are no columnist emergencies, unless you have left a vital fact out of the last line of a column and editors desperately need to get you the night before it runs. I have found, however, that if they can't get you, they figure it out for themselves and sometimes even make it better.

I had also thought, as a reporter, that I should have a beeper, so I at least could be notified when it was important for me to call someone, and, later, a laptop computer so I could write my columns on the road and on the fly.

Turns out that a three-column-a-week schedule doesn't involve much time on the fly, and a beeper for those crucial columnist phone calls ("Jan, hurry back to the office, a county commissioner is about to say something stupid!") just isn't that necessary.

And I think the reasoning behind not giving me a laptop is that if I could file my columns from somewhere outside the office, then they will never know where I am.

At least this way they know that if I need to be yelled at about something, an infrequent, but always esoterically interesting occurrence, ("Was it YOU who put the bird doo in the city editor's mailbox?") they can find me three days a week (usually the last hour and minute before my column is due).

I do go on the road occasionally, and will be doing a lot more of it after I return from vacation, but the places I go in Hernando and Citrus counties always are close enough to a Times office that I can go in, borrow a computer, mess up somebody's desk and be gone before one of the resident reporters has time to let the air out of my tires for his or her material for one of my cheap-shot columns.

The funny thing for me is that, just as I saw having all those electronic devices at my command as a status symbol, I now see them as more ways for my bosses to keep track of me, which, for their own sake as well as mine, I avoid. It would only expose them to information they don't want to know.

As noted earlier, I will be a benign and loving dictator. There will be no capital punishment for young mothers who get into cell-phone diatribes in quiet restaurants about whose turn it is to pick up the kids after soccer and ballet, or men who just have to call their brokers while standing in line at a movie.

I'll just order the cell-phones Krazy-Glued to the sides of their heads.

That way their hands will be free when they feel the need to make restaurant reservations while driving.

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