The Bluetooth: Life Line or Out of Line?

*The story below was submitted to the City Section of the New York Times. The pitch was accepted by my editor on a contingency basis, however she rejected the finished article because she didn't think it offered anything new. You be the judge.

A customer walked into a Brooklyn corner store to purchase a pack of gum. As he approached the register, he was twice called sweetheart by the clerk standing behind the counter. The customer froze for a moment until he realized the clerk was talking on his cell phone through a Bluetooth mobile phone headset—a five-minute phone conversation of 4,000 minutes he used that month.

The Bluetooth headset clips over the ear and functions as both an earpiece and receiver. The teardrop shaped device emits a flashing blue signal like a Christmas light. It is an ornament known to many for the awkward exchanges it inspires rather than its utility as a hands free mode of cell phone conversation.

But, for the men who work long hours in the City’s convenience stores and taxi cabs, it can be a life-line. The Bluetooth headset and other attachments like it allow them to catch up with their spouses, engage in remote parenting, and to be sure, talk about sports too.

But what then are they talking about, and to whom?

At the 5th Avenue Market in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Mohomed Ali, known to his regulars as Mojo, works seven nights a week at the 24-hour outpost and three days in receiving at a department store. Mr. Ali, half Yemeni; half Venezuelan, speaks English, Spanish, and Arabic. He carries on with his customers and callers in all three languages.

People call me when they want to talk, he said. “At three in the morning, if they can’t sleep they know I’m awake.” But, he cautioned against using two things at once. “It gets you into trouble.” You have to pay attention to customers, especially when counting out change, he said.

Taxi drivers surveyed in an informal poll estimated that at least three-quarters of their colleagues used a hands free device. Though The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission outlawed their use, it could be considered the cabbies’ equivalent of jaywalking.

Even so, drivers remain cautious. On a recent Sunday at the Central Taxi Hold at Kennedy International Airport, among the hundreds of drivers who awaited dispatch, the right ear was the pronounced favorite for the attachment. This ear points inside the car, unseen from the driver’s side window.

Luis Almonte has driven a taxi since 1971, and been married to his wife for all of those years. For the last two have they communicated using the Bluetooth headset. Of the couples’ four children, his daughter calls him the most, his sons less so. ”I call my wife whenever I’m feeling lonely, or she is too,” he said.

Azzam Hesham said he prefers talking by speakerphone while driving his taxi. “The Bluetooth makes you look stupid,” he said. He suggested the product designers create a clip-on device that attaches to clothing like guests wear on television talk shows.

Sonu Singh, a driver for two years, said he uses the Bluetooth headset to stay alert on late night shifts, get directions, traffic reports, and avoid police activity. “It’s just another tool of the trade.”

Khasru Ahmed has driven a taxi for 21 years, and as an early adopter of the Bluetooth headset, began using it seven years ago. Mr. Ahmed said he likes the voice command feature for hands free dialing. He talks to everybody, he said. “I’m a very popular guy.”

Mr. Ali, at the 5th Avenue Market, would consider himself in good company. When asked if he had any significant others, he responded, “you can’t have just one.”

Though some of his relationships are more understanding than others, he said. “You have to take care of business. That comes first.” Others, he said, are less accepting of the arrangement.

Whatever the topic of conversation, the constant chatter may have more to do with its low cost than the need to stay connected. Most cell phone plans offer evening and weekend minutes free, and no one knows this better than night-shift workers.


Eric said…
Hey Marc- I think it's great and the Times should've taken it! I had a confusion conversation outside the Beauty Bar last year due to the blue tooth.


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