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Jewish World Review May 5, 2004 / 14 Iyar, 5764

James Lileks

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Consumer Reports

New cell phone does everything, but there's a problem... | A cold, miserable weekend afternoon. I was heading into the electronics store to buy a radio for my wife's new home office. Near the door was a tent emblazoned with a cell-phone company logo; a fellow was standing by a display, shivering slightly in the wind. I thought: Who decides to change their cell service because they see a guy at a card table outside the stereo store? Who wants to stand outside in 45-degree weather and rejigger their roaming options?

Then I realized: You know, I need to rejigger my roaming options.

So I went over to chat. Imagine my surprise: They were running a special offer. See this phone? This tiny, shiny phone? Normally, it would cost $250, but today they'd rebate all but $75 if I signed up. Why, you're practically losing money if you don't do it. And look at this phone -- so tiny that you can carry it in your mouth and spit it out when you want to talk. What are you using now? A Nokia 7300? Man, you might as well carry a trombone case in your pocket. We've had reports of people who lean to one side permanently because they're carrying around that brick. Permanently. The battery is powered by a small black hole, that's why it's so heavy. Look at this phone! It takes pictures. It plays games. You can download annoying ring tones such as "Bolero." The entire tune! We're the only carrier who offers an eleven-minute ring tone. Also, look at this: Press Star-66, and it's a Taser. Shoots immobilizing electrical wires. That'll decrease your battery life, depending on the severity of the shock, but these new phones charge back fast. And! Here's a special GPS upgrade. Push this button, and it'll tell you where you are. Watch: I push Star ??, and . . . OK, no carrier, but if this wasn't a dead zone it would say we were standing in a parking lot in Edina, give or take 6 feet.

Well, he didn't say any of that, but it was running through my head as I convinced myself. It was time to rejoin the cell-phone world. I have one, but I hate it. It's big and ugly and so 2001. My wife uses it now -- and it's odd when she calls from the road, and I see my name come up on Caller ID. Question to the cell-phone salesguy: Could we transfer the number to her so it shows up on Caller ID, get new phones for both of us? But of course -- all is possible in this brave new world!

And so my troubles began.

First we had to add my wife, then join a family plan, then cancel me, then transfer the number, then add me, then smear chicken guts on the computer monitor and pray to Zeus, or something. It was quite complex. The fellow who set me up was an absolute whiz, though, typing the equivalent of a 60,000-word novel. After half an hour: Done! One problem: They were out of the phones.

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But! They had them at another store. The guy who'd been manning the card table offered to go get them. What a fine gent, I thought. An hour later we met again; the phones were activated, calls were made to the head office. Then we hit the mother of all deal-killers: T-mobile wouldn't let different names come up on Caller ID. No matter how many phones you had, they'd all come up with my name. Or my wife's, if she was the primary name on the account.

I'm going to have my wife's name come up when I call someone? I should also wear a dress and pumps and maybe a nice pearl necklace? Hello? Compromise: Both our names come up. Given the length of her name, this meant the displays would say WIFE MCWIFEWIFE AND JAM. I wouldn't even get JAMES. Just JAM. Or perhaps JA.

Maddening. Unacceptable. So after three boring hours, I now have a new cell plan that's twice the cost of the previous one, and doesn't have accurate Caller ID, and I just found this out after signing a 40-year contract that gives them my house and my immortal soul if I cancel prematurely. Great! Fine! Here's a letter opener -- stab me in the buttocks, and make this day even better! The clerk was apologetic, said he thought T-Mobile could handle something as daring and difficult as different Caller ID for different numbers. Verizon could do it, he said.

But -- I'm -- not -- with Verizon. I'm with the one that has that scrumptious Catherine Zeta-Jones in the ads. And she always looks so happy. Compare and contrast.

His verdict: We could cancel everything we did, take back the phones, buy new phones, turn around three times, shout GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY into a coffee can, bury a toad's jawbone at midnight, and start again. Now get this: Verizon's phones were nearly identical. Same manufacturer, same model, no real difference. They were cheaper, too: $79.99 instead of $225. And the rebate was $80. I would actually make a penny. And! There was an in-store promotion that paid me $50 for each phone, meaning I'd make $100.02 on the deal.

The mind swims. This is when you realize that they're making it all up. The phones probably cost a dime to make. This whole rebate thing is an utter scam. I would have done it all right there, but I was late for supper. So I used the store's cell phone to call home. First time I've had to make a cell-phone call in a month, and it's to tell my wife I'm late because I'm buying a cell phone.

Went back the next day. Another hour of typing. An additional half-hour of typing to exchange the old phones for the new ones. New problem: Turns out the inventory computers were wrong. The store didn't have the phones. But another store did. This time no one offered to go get them. Off I went. Got the phones. Goes without saying that I set off the security system when I left the store.

And so I was able to surprise my wife with a new phone that had her Caller ID, and all was well. At last.

That's great, she said. And then she gave me a quizzical look:

"Didn't you go there to get a new radio?"

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2003, James Lileks