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No longer a (sure) sign of insanity

Washington Post

Crazy?

Or cellphone?

It’s the latest sidewalk game in the urban canyon:

On K Street, a guy in a tie screams at the air, “Who do you think you are?”

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In Dupont Circle, a woman downing dainty bites of a muffin ponders, seemingly to no one, “Ummm, no.” Then, more confidently, “No.”

Outside the Capitol, a dapper young man circles a patch of sidewalk, stabs his pen at a notebook and jabbers whispered words to the ground.

Crazy?

Or cellphone?

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Used to be that we knew immediately: The phones were, at first, way too big to miss. Then we learned to spot the subtler signs -- the hand cradled to the ear, the chiropractically problematic crook-necked shrug, the dark wire dangling down the chatterer’s neck.

But now --

“Who are you talking to?” an older woman asks Vernal Hardy at Neiman Marcus. Inside the store’s luxurious hush the noise of “crazy” is not only unacceptable but flat-out gauche. So Hardy, 26, wearing a wireless headset, shows the woman the tiny apostrophe in his ear. It connects to his cellphone, and it’s so itsy-bitsy it makes his watch face look like the moon on his wrist.

It employs Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology that creates “personal area networks among your devices, and with other nearby devices,” which sounds vaguely kinky, like a new little friend with benefits. With measurements in the millimeters, this is the latest cellphone gadget to change the ways we denigrate one another.

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“You see [someone] arguing, and it looks like he’s schizophrenic!” says bike messenger Jeff Combs, who finds himself moderately reassured when he can say, “Ohhhh. He’s got one of those things on.”

Wireless headsets can cost more than $200, and some of those talking most outrageously can be wearing bespoke suits and silk ties. This is not to say that it’s always easy to tell which is which in the game of Crazy? Or cellphone?

Across Dupont Circle struts a debonair man, swinging his sunglasses all jaunty and confident.

“All right,” he’s saying. “That’s right.” Like he’s finishing up a business call and is about to spend the afternoon playing hooky. “Uh huh.”

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We walk toward him, armed with our anthropologist questions, then notice: There is no headset. He keeps talking. We back away.

The enthusiastic adopters know how they look. “You’re an idiot” and “What’s wrong with him?” were Ed Schneider’s Bluetoothy judgments before he became one himself. Schneider, 44, is wearing his earpiece at Union Station, waiting for a train back home to Richmond, Va. He’s now addicted: “It’s phenomenal,” he says -- repeatedly. “I’m totally sold on it.”

His wife, though? Can’t stand it. She calls Schneider’s oversized earring a “Star Wars-type thing,” and she calls him “Spock.”

We thought the early days of cellphones were bad, with the still unsolved moral equation between the industrious converts (I cannot live without it!) and the pious holdouts (So rude! So tacky!). Who airs their personal business on public sidewalks?

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“I’m never gonna do that! That’s crazy,” Darius Carr, 36, promised himself -- until a few weeks ago. He now wears his earpiece constantly, even during lunch eaten on a downtown bench.

Confesses fanatic Frederic Roane, 48, “I’ve had several girlfriends tell me they don’t like it.”

“Like you’re a robot,” agrees Stephen Robinson, 57, who has stopped to talk to Roane at Union Station because they’re both wearing the same Plantronics wireless earpiece. He’s in town from the Bay Area on business.

“It just looks like they’re trying to be important,” continues Roane, quoting his girlfriends.

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“Yep, yep,” Robinson says, then takes off his earpiece.

Yet we find this all irresistible.

Last year, a scant 2% of Americans were “extremely familiar” with Bluetooth, the technology enabling these wireless headsets. This year, that number is 50%, a statistical skyrocket dubbed by market analyst Brian O’Rourke as “really shocking.”

In 2005, 33 million wireless earpieces were shipped worldwide, he says. This year’s predicted number: 55 million.

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This is our future. Before long, our little street game of Crazy? Or cellphone? will seem a quaint anachronism, like an old address book with no extra spaces for “e-mail” and “cellphone.”


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