“Is It Noisy in Here, Or Is It Just Me?”

It’s Saturday morning at a local coffee shop. The busy room with its mismatched tables and chairs feels rather like the dining room at Grandma’s house when the whole family is visiting—friendly enough to seem cozy rather than crowded.

I’m alone at a table for four, waiting for some friends, supposedly writing but really eavesdropping in both directions. The seven or eight people crowded around the table to my right are talking and laughing with animation. The volume is, not unpleasantly, somewhere between “background noise” and “impossible to ignore.” Their caffeine-fueled chorus tends to drown out the conversation of the smaller group on my left.

Until the inevitable happens. A cell phone rings. The sound, and the ensuing conversation from my left, is at first merely a new voice in the chorale. As it progresses, though, I find out more. The caller is apparently the daughter of the owner of the cell phone. She is out of town at some sort of competition. She has done well in the first round of debate or basketball or dog-grooming or whatever it was. She will call back that evening after the next round.

I know this—and so does everyone else in the coffee shop—because we are lucky enough to be privy to both sides of the conversation. The woman at the table, after answering her phone, says, “It’s noisy in here. Let me put you on speaker.” We get to hear, not only the mother’s side of the conversation as she shouts into the phone, but her daughter’s as well. The young woman’s voice screeches out of the speaker, enhanced by background noise and distortion into a credible imitation of the featured soprano in a wannabe punk rock band.

I try to close my ears and concentrate on my notebook and my scone. The conversation at the merry table to my right falters as people glance over their shoulders and frown. The patrons at the other tables look up. The staff members behind the counter pause in their coffee-brewing and tea-pouring. We’re all suspended for a few moments until the cellular invasion, mercifully brief, is over. Then we breathe a united sigh of relief and go on about our business.

The culprit, apparently oblivious, drops her phone back into her purse. Let’s hope that this evening, when her daughter calls back, she isn’t out in public.

We’ve come a long way since Samuel Morse opened the door to instant communication with his invention of the telegraph. The first message he sent was, “What hath God wrought.” Had he had the gift of prophecy as well as technology, he might have said, “What? Hath God wrought wrath? Or is it just noisy in here?”

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