The Old Scout

Answering the Call of the Chattering Classes
August 2, 2005

Don't ask me why, I bought a deluxe cell phone that can send text messages and take photographs and video. It also may be used to dial phone numbers and talk to people. It does everything except trim your ear hair and maybe it can do that and I just haven't figured out how. It plays Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro" when somebody calls me, which gives each call special beauty and poignancy, and I carry it with me wherever I go and phone in updates on my progress: I'M AT THE GROCERY - YOU CAN'T HEAR ME? - THAT'S ODD. YOU'RE COMING IN LOUD AND CLEAR. I'LL TRY YOU LATER ON MY WAY HOME.

Lindbergh flew the Atlantic with no radio and nobody knew where he was until some fishermen saw his plane off the Irish coast, but I maintain constant contact as I roam the produce section shopping for honeydew melons. I used to feel superior to cell phone people and now I am one. And now a soprano is singing Puccini, and it is my wife wondering about my plans for the day. I am fond of this little gizmo. Some people consider it an intrusion and goody for them, but I grew up in the sticks and know how oppressive silence can be and I am not romantic about isolation. I remember those flinty old guys in small-town cafes who wouldn't give you the time of day and I don't miss them at all. I miss my aunts. I think my aunts would've loved cell phones.

A few weeks ago I was at the airport at 1 a.m. and got in a crowd of 30 Hmong people waiting at the foot of the escalator for somebody to arrive. They were in a high state of excitation, chirping away, their chatter like bird song, and it reminded me how good it felt long ago coming home from six months in Europe and walking through a crowd at the airport and hearing 40 conversations at once, a shower of American voices. After six months of trying to remember verb declensions, the sheer pleasure of friendly meaningless chatter.

For years I've told stories on the radio and eventually I started to meet men and women who had grown up listening to me and whose parents had taped my stories and played them to their children at night to put them to sleep - and it worked. It took me awhile to appreciate this, but now I do. People like to be talked to. It has nothing to do with literary merit; it's about vowels. This is what our women wanted when they said, "Why don't you ever talk to me?" We imagined that they wanted us to talk about the future of higher education, so we sat and thought long thoughts, but really they only wanted some clucking and chittering, a few caws. This is what cell phones are for, to honk into and declare our position and reaffirm loyalty.

When I was in college, the smart people were going into engineering, which had solid long-term prospects, and only we dweezils majored in English, and look what happened: Engineers are being laid off, America is losing its capacity to manufacture things (my phone was made in China, of course), but every day we turn out trillions of words about ourselves, bloggers blogging, floods of memoir, day-dreaming, carpet-chewing, and when eventually the Chinese repo men come to collect on our debt, they will find a nation of highly articulate self-aware people who can't change an oil filter but maintain wonderful Web sites. A nation of English majors.

I woke up this morning with the blues and felt like laying my head on some lonesome railroad line and let that 8:19 ease my troubled mind. But the 8:19 doesn't run anymore, so instead I lay my head against a cell phone and talked to Mona and we chatted about the old days, back when there were cabooses and hitchhikers and front porches and cars had engines you could tinker with and the songs on the radio were songs we loved to sing and men wore hats and looked classy in them and people were less snobby because they'd been through the Depression and gradually I felt reassured about my place in the natural order, like a goose in the left wing of a V hearing my fellows honking fore and aft as we skim over the treetops, flapping with one wing, holding a cell phone with the other.

© 2005 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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