[This was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune]
Walking along the board walk at Pacific Beach last week, I was suddenly confronted with the sight of a 20-something guy with shoulder length hair striding toward me, gesticulating wildly with his arms and talking loudly to no one in particular. There was a time when this would have been a no-brainer; I would have given him a wide berth and hoped that he would get back on his medication some time soon.
But then I thought I saw the tell-tale signs of a little wire hanging down from his ear, and it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a new and troubling sociological dilemma: how to tell the dangerously deranged from the cell phone head set user. (A friend claims there is actually not much difference.)
Certainly the proliferation of cell phones have spawned no end of debate from legal issues (talking while driving) to those of simple courtesy. A sign in The Cheese Shop in La Jolla informs customers that their sandwich preferences will be happily noted once the orderer is off his cell phone. It is virtually impossible to go through a supermarket line without being treated to the inanities of someone's cell phone conversation. At Blockbuster Video, there is invariably the blockhead who is painstakingly moving along the racks reading every single title to (presumably) Mrs. Blockhead at home.
But the hands-free head sets are a different problem altogether. This is potentially a serious public safety issue. Before cell phone headsets, a person's behavior was a reasonable clue to their state of mind, and more specifically, to their threat to you. But no more.
As always, the perps will probably not see themselves. If in doubt, it might not hurt to take this little quiz. When you talk on your head set cell phone, do people:
(1) Pull out their own cell phones, dial 911 and point in your direction?
(2) Look at you with fear in their eyes as they edge nervously away?
(3) Pull their little children protectively toward them?
(4) Scream "I have a weapon and I'm not afraid to use it"?
If so, it is because YOU LOOK LIKE A LUNATIC.
Sometimes, of course, you think they're talking to you - not unreasonable since a quick survey indicates there isn't anyone else around - and, not wishing to be rude, you feel obligated to reply. "Um, no, I didn't actually think George had a hot body. But then, I don't know anyone named George" The cell phone user then turns her (or his) back on you, eyes rolling, and can be heard to mutter, "Just some old lady who thought I was talking to her. As if!!" Then she continues on her monologue looking like she's talking to little people who live in her hair.
Given the seriousness of this dilemma for the general public, I foresee legislation mandating signs in public places that read: "Visible cell phone required" with the implied "or we throw a net over you." In the meantime, when confronted with an individual displaying erratic symptoms who may or may not be talking on a cell phone head set, I think it would be reasonable to shoot them with a tranquilizer dart while you're sorting it out. Better safe than sorry.
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