Big Brother, who cares?

The feds may be listening, but nobody in our mad cellphone world is about to stop talking.

Published February 1, 2006 11:00AM (EST)

If the National Security Administration is monitoring my phone calls for quality assurance (and why shouldn't they be?) they're no doubt puzzled over conversations that go like this:

ME: Hi. Just me.

HER: Where are you?

ME: On my way home.

HER: You're calling from the car?

ME: Right.

HER: You coming straight home?

ME: Be there in five minutes.

HER: OK. Bye now.

ME: Bye now.

"Bye now" is a common sign-off in Minnesota, short for "Goodbye for now," but to an intelligence officer, it might sound like "Final," the code name of the al-Qaida operative in Upper Hotdogistan, which might be enough to get me stuffed into an unmarked plane to Syria, where men with pantyhose over their heads will take turns bouncing on me until I tell what I know about Project Cantaloupe, which is nothing, nada, zero. And three years later I'd return home, unable to remember my own Social Security number or the lineup of the 1987 Minnesota Twins.

But I am not going to worry about this now. Conservatives are supposed to worry about government running roughshod over individuals. That's their job. If conservatives don't give a rip about warrantless wiretaps or torture or imprisonment without trial, then why should you or I?

Fear of the NSA isn't inhibiting anybody, that's for sure. I got on a plane in Indianapolis last Sunday and half the passengers had little silver phones stuck to their ears, checking in with headquarters, reporting their position and ETA. There were two or three seamy conversations about money, and one man breathing hard into his phone, but harmlessly, I'm sure.

To me, young people, the cellphone is an innovation out of the funny papers, Dick Tracy's wrist radio now in everyone's pocket. Everyone except my stepdaughter, who believes it causes brain cancer. I saw a homeless man camped in a sleeping bag on the steps of a church, his shopping cart parked nearby, and he was mumbling into a cellphone. Which is perfectly reasonable, homeless people having no way to hook up a regular phone, but what about Trappist monks? What about cowpokes and deckhands and poets and all the classic lonely guys? The hobo highballing through Utah: Does he sit in his boxcar and talk to his mom in Peoria? Is Holden Caulfield sending text messages to Phoebe from Central Park? Maybe the little kids running through the rye toward the cliff need a catcher even more if they're yakking on phones.

I remember, young people, a time in our nation's history when people walked down the street quietly thinking their own thoughts. They didn't stop at every corner to put a quarter in a pay phone and let HQ know which way the wind was blowing. Persons of that era -- an era that produced Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," J.F. Powers' "Morte D'Urban," and "Searchin'" by Leiber & Stoller and recorded by the Coasters -- were able to live in their own heads a good deal of the time.

I don't say that's a good thing necessarily. I'm not saying that men with those weird bat-wing devices clipped onto their ears are not decent, hardworking people. If I have stared at you as I might stare at a gibbon grooming his hindquarters, gentlemen, I apologize. I only raise a question.

Soon we'll have 14-digit telephone numbers, and then 20- and 25-digit. You can't remember 25 digits, so if you lose your cellphone on the plane, you'll be in big trouble. You'll need to locate a surviving pay phone, perhaps in a dusty alcove under the stairs, and get some coins by breaking a twenty at Starbucks, purchasing the venti latte with 2 percent and a shot of rhubarb flavoring. You dial Information. You get an operator with a Bengali accent and you ask for a number in Minnesota and she asks you to spell it. And then an electronic lady's voice spiels out the 25 digits as you balance the latte in the arm that your laptop bag is slung over and you write seven digits on the palm of your left hand before the ballpoint runs out of ink and a big hand clamps on your shoulder. A bullet-headed man in a black jumpsuit takes you away in an SUV. Those seven digits correspond to Arabic letters that spell "Tuesday," and for the next three days interrogators sit on you and ask what heinous things you're cooking up.

I'd rather not go there, young people. You go. I'll stay here.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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