Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Feb 2011

Cell Phones

-(or whatever you call them - smartphone, picture phone, more bile phone (that's how irritating they are) 'handy' -- no kidding, the Germans invented that term and think it's English! ("Pleez offtomachen your handy!")

These two items appeared separately in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated and have been consolidated onto a single page here.

entry Jan. 2003
1. cell-phones

It used to be that when you saw a guy talking to himself on the street, that was really what he was doing —talking to himself or perhaps to the Mother Ship. He was just some poor soul “from Aversa,” as they used to say around here, Aversa (north of Naples) being the site of the now defunct hospital for the criminally insane. 

No more. The hands-off cellular phone has arrived. Yes, it is still possible that the man on the corner is channelling the disembodied voice of Artax, Crown Prince of Atlantis (and if he has a voice with a body running around inside his head, then he is having real problems, and you may wish to stand on a different corner), but, probably, he really is talking to someone. With that, the world's worst worst (sic) nightmare has come true. The simply 'worst' nightmare, you will recall, was teenagers plus telephones. You know, hours and hours of adolescent drivel clogging the coaxials and keeping the rest of us from getting on with our own hours and hours of adult drivel. Now, get ready for Son of Worst, to wit: teenagers plus hands–off cell phones plus motor scooters in Neapolitan traffic! 

Something had to happen to accommodate people like that kid on the scooter who turned in front of me yesterday. He had, illegally, two passengers on the back, was turning left at a busy three–way unmarked crossing (well, 'unmarked' except for the large sign that said: "Go for it!"), and was steering through it all with one hand only, since the other was holding a cell phone, thus permitting him at least the potential luxury of yakking his way into oblivion. He was also trying to smoke a cigarette using an auxiliary tentacle that very cool teenagers miraculously sprout for just such occasions. 

I have nothing against cell phones. I am very impressed by the self-importance of all those global village peacocks strutting around with their electronic status toys —into restaurants, movies, churches, shops, bars, funerals, public restrooms and concerts. Orchestra conductors just love to hear one ring during the closing pianissimo of, say, Tschaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, and when they go off at just the right moment, they can even heighten the fulfillment of passion (—although some experts now speculate that that might actually come more from the concussion you get when you bolt up to answer the phone and whack your skull on the tin roof of a Fiat 500). And now with the “call waiting” function, you don't even need two phones to wheel and deal; with one cell phone, you can always have "Geneva on the other line". The possibilities are endless. 

Anyway, for that very lucky scooterman in front of me (yes, he made it through —they always do), the main body of the hands-off voice-activated cell phone is mounted below the handlebars and is connected by a cable to earphones and microphone worn by the driver. The smiling young woman in the ad for the device is, tsk-tsk, not wearing a helmet (nor were any of the three persons on that motorscooter I missed), but the earphones can, indeed, be mounted into a regulation noggin guard. At that point, the ad assures, your incoming call will be totally audible, since it is virtually sealed off from the distractions of environmental noise. Such distractions would presumably include not only the dulcet roar of general traffic, but the sirens of those annoying ambulances trying to pass you, and the screams of your illegally mounted passengers as they bounce off your scooter and are dragged with one foot in the stirrup for a few days or until you decide to get off the damned phone. 

You can, we are assured, keep both hands on the handlebars while you talk. When your phone rings, your "hello" or "pronto" will activate your microphone and off you talk. The only drawback, it says in small small small print, is that in order to dial out, you really should pull over since you need to punch in the number manually, and you really wouldn't want to steer with just one hand, would you? Would you?! 

One moment. I have to put you on hold. I have a call from Artax coming in.  

entry Feb. 2003
2. cell-phones  

The long, cold Neapolitan winter is over. 'O paese d' 'o sole—“The Land of the Sun,” as they say in Neapolitan —has returned. I looked out the window this morning and thought, Oh, no! My eyes have turned to cobalt —but I'm…so…young. Fortunately, it was just a bright, cerulean day over the entire Gulf of Naples, and the only snow left was the white, crystal diadem on Vesuvius. The weather should stay like this, oh, at least until the day after tomorrow, when another cold front will move down from Rekjavik. In a scant few tens of millions of years, the tectonic plate I live on will have pushed the Alps up high enough to block this sort of illicit cold weather from the north. I can’t wait. 

Yes, it was a glorious day to be cut off from the world. They turned off my telephone. I know that most people already have some sort of chip implanted in their brains so they are always in contact. They can always call and be called, disturb and be disturbed, and are evermore bereft of the inner silence, a silence never jangled by tinny, electronic versions of Mozart’s Turkish March going off in your molars when there is “incoming”. I weep for these people, for they will never know the sense of freedom that I am feeling at this moment. 

(Three hours later)—I have just gone out and bought a cell phone. I couldn’t take it. 

Six words: Don’t mess with the phone company (SIP, in Italy). (If contractions count as two words, that makes seven, I know —as in the Seven Last Words of Christ. My Aramaic friends tell me that a rough translation of those Seven Last Words is: Do Not Mess With The Phone Company.) All we told them was that we didn’t like them anymore and were switching to a more efficient private carrier. Zap. They turned off the ADSL line a month early and the phone today. I think they can do that, and that even if I were a centipede, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in any sort of a legal showdown. 

I am reminded of the case, a few years ago, of a Neapolitan doctor, Ermanno Russo. He had a cell phone installed in his car. He used it primarily to keep in contact with his patients in the Naples area. His phone bills ran to about 400–450 thousand lire for the two-month billing period (In those fine pre-Euro days, that was about 200–225 dollars. So far, so good. He then got active in politics, ran for office and, lo and behold, his first phone bill after the election was for one and one–half million lire. Hmmm, thinks Ermanno, this, too, is possible. After all, I was on the phone a lot in the  campaign. 

It is only when the next phone bill arrives —for three million lire! ($1500)—that he decides to pay a call on SIP, the phone company. Their records show that he has called Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, Jupiter and various other places where, one, he has no patients, and, two, was not running for office. 

"But…but…," stammers Russo. "I don't even keep teenagers in my car. How is this possible? Maybe something has gone wrong with your system!" 

He hits a stone wall quarried in Carrara. Gone wrong? Look, they say, smiling at him down those long bureaucratic noses of patient disdain, this is not some fallible human agency you are dealing with. This is The Phone Company.  F as in Father, S as in Son, and Holy Spirit as in Phone Company. "Do you understand?" they ask, mouthing each syllable carefully so as not to overtax their client's limited mental faculties. They tell Russo, heh–heh, that he should be more careful about letting others use his mobile phone. Russo then takes the phone out of his car, field–strips it and trots the pieces down to the police station, hands them to the coppers and says,"Here, watch these for me". Then, with his Star Trek walkie–talkie safely under gendarme lock and key, his next phone bill is for eight million lire! Then, as they say, the SIP hit the fan. 

After furious electronic sleuthing, authorities  traced Russo's phone woes to a local doctor cum hacker who  figured out how to patch his own phone into the frequencies used by the —at the time— new cellular telephones. All you needed, he said, was lots of computer smarts and some sucker's number, and, boy, did he ever have Russo's number. It started as a prank, said he, and then, as the word spread among his own circle of freeloading friends, it got out of hand. 

These days, the phone company says not to worry about it. They have the situation under control. Now, about this swamp land I'm selling… 

Hold on. There goes my molar.

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