Thursday, 25 October 2007

Cellular shock urban legends

Do you remember the early days of cellular phones? That was only a decade ago, but it was back in the days before pre-paid accounts, and seems to belong to a bygone era. Then, cell phones inspired such passions among people who loved them or hated them, between people who flashed them about ostentatiously and those who were embarrassed to be caught with one, they were a natural magnet for urban legends.

There are two very distinct categories of cellular phone legends: good phones, and bad phones. The good ones are heavily outnumbered by the bad ones. That was especially the case during the mid-1990s, since there were so many more people who couldn't stand the phones than those who swore by them. But in the latter category is a tale that has numerous true and legendary variations. It is the story of...

The stupid car thieves

A man came out of his house to discover his car had been stolen. He rushed inside, phoned the police, asked them to listen in to his line, and then phoned the number of his cellular phone. He heard his phone being picked up, and a voice saying "Hello?" The moment he introduced himself as the owner of the car, the thief panicked and slammed down the phone. However, he didn't know how to replace the handset properly to disconnect the call.

The car owner - and the police - were able to listen to a detailed conversation between the thief and his accomplice about where they were taking the car, to whom they were selling it, and even about where they lived. By the time they got home, the police were waiting with the handcuffs.

In a variation on this legend, the thieves turn out be rather chatty, and joke and chat with the car owner for fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, by listening to the sounds of traffic - over bridges, past toll gates, through tunnels - and the screeching of tires as it went around bends, the police are able to figure out where they are headed, and set up a roadblock. The one thief is still chatting when the police pull them over...

The astonishing aspect of that legend is how often one hears "true" variations on the theme. The above version was reported almost verbatim as the true experience of one Richard Lassen of Sydney, Australia. The thieves did not realise that it was the owner phoning, and kept chatting for a while before the penny dropped and they hung up, but not before revealing their names. It was claimed that these thieves, too, did not know how to hang up properly.
And then the following report went out on the wire services:

VANCOUVER - A woman whose cellular phone was stolen from her chair in a Vancouver, Canada, restaurant located it by dialling her number from the bar counter, police said. A 36-year-old man was arrested.

No names are revealed, which means that we can put a huge question mark over the veracity of that one. But it does indicate that there are probably enough true-life versions to justify people's belief in the urban legends.

And then there is the flip side of these cellular phone legends. Rather than using them to catch the bad guys, the users themselves were turned into bad guys by the mere possession of what was once a yuppie toy.

The best-known version of this story was the tale of ...

The Fake Tycoon

Passengers in a train traveling from Brighton to London were becoming increasingly agitated at the behaviour of one young man, dressed in the finest Carnaby Street suit, sprouting the latest Sloane Square hairstyle, and jabbering away into a stylish cellular phone. It wasn't so much that he was using the phone as the way he was using it.

Like some stereotype from the movies, he was shouting things like: "Gold is moving up! Buy! Buy! Buy!" and "Sell those worthless platinum shares NOW!" and "Is my new Ferrari ready yet? I'm paying good money for it!"

Suddenly, another passenger in the compartment doubled over. Other passengers rushed to his aid, and discovered he had had a heart attack. Desperate, they asked the yuppie to hang up so that they could use his phone to call for an ambulance at the next station. The yuppie was bewildered. He tried to protest, but the fellow passengers insisted. Finally one of them grabbed the phone out of his hands, tried to dial, and discovered it was dead. On looking more closely, he discovered it was a fake plastic toy phone, bought from a novelty shop...
The South African version of that legend was only slightly kinder to the obnoxious yuppie. We'll call this story...

Call holding

He was another one of those obnoxious young men who insisted on flaunting every status symbol he could afford. And so it was with his cellular phone.. He couldn't bear NOT to be showing it off to every stranger in sight.

So there he was, in the Sandton City restaurant, having a looong conversation, yapping away, talking at the top of his voice about how he expected certain things to be done by the time he got back to the office, and how big a deal he had just swung, and how he was going to nail the idiots who had tried to get in his way. When suddenly ... his phone rang!

Everyone in the restaurant, who had unsuccessfully been trying to shut out his conversation from their ears, looked round. And burst out laughing. With their guffaws still ringing in his ears, he answered the call, put the phone back in his pocket, and slinked out of the restaurant, never to be seen there again.

The real-life cellular phone fad of the moment is to phone the front-desk of a restaurant from your table, ask for a waiter and demand faster service. That one's so overused by now, one restaurant manager throws out anyone who tries it, and several restaurants tried banning cellular phones. But don't expect the phone users to take it lying down. Before long, they'll be getting their revenge in the land of urban legends.

1 comment:

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