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Cell o' Feign


Claim:   Businessman participating in an impressive-sounding phone conversation is revealed to be using a fake phone.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Healey & Glanvill, 1996]

A friend of a former colleague told me about an incident that recently befell his boss on a train. He was feeling chuffed at claiming a four-seat table for himself and settled down to a nice quiet journey reading his book. The whistle blew and as the train lurched away, a loud, acne'd yuppie trousered his way into the carriage, threw his bags down on the table, collapsed into the seat opposite, and immediately brandished his portable phone and began a loud, oafish conversation — "Buy ... Sell ... Take a rain check ... Hyper!" — that sort of thing.

The quieter man couldn't believe his misfortune and tried to ignore the boorish city type, but he was so noisy, ringing up people and rustling papers and shouting, "Yah ... yah ... yah" into the phone all the time, that the bloke couldn't take any more and set off with his stuff for another part of the train.

He'd just sat down when an old man opposite him went pale and groaned. He was having a heart attack and collapsed on the floor. The guard arrived as passengers tried to come to the old gent's aid, and he explained that they'd have to wait 'til the next station before they could phone as the train's communication lines were down.

"I know someone with a phone!" said the bloke happily. "We can ring ahead and have an ambulance waiting for him at the station."

So the guard, the bloke and some other concerned passengers marched triumphantly back down the carriage. The yuppie was still in mid-conversation when the guard cut in to explain the situation and ask him, as it was an emergency, if they might have the use of his portable phone.

At first the yuppie waved them away as if he was busy, still talking down the line. But when they persisted and got increasingly agitated, he threw the phone down, went the colour of beetroot and looking down mumbled, "You can't. It's only a fake phone."
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1998]

There was this chap on the train with me who was completing some stupendous business via a mobile phone. The deal is closed and the caller obviously comes away a wealthy man. A short while later someone on the train suffers a heart attack. The call goes out: "Who's got a mobile phone?," "That chap over there! He's got one." The chap with the mobile sort of coughs, look sheepish and admits the mobile is a toy.
 

Origins:   Though cell phones are a relatively recent innovation, the desire to impress others is not. Predating these cell phone tales are older ones along the same theme of a pompous man's impressive phone conversation being revealed as a put-on. For example, radio host Paul Harvey related the following anecdote to his audience in the 1980s:
Eddie Stephens, Palmetto, Georgia, writes our "For What It's Worth Department" ... About a local fledgling lawyer who was sitting in his new office waiting for his first client.

When he heard the outer door open he quickly tried Ringing telephone to sound very busy. As the man entered the office, the young lawyer is on the telephone saying, quote: "Bill, I'm flying to New York on the Mitchell Brothers thing; it looks like it's going to be a biggie. Also we'll need to bring Carl in from Houston on the Cimarron case. By the way, Al Cunningham and Pete Finch want to come in with me as partners. Bill, you'll have to excuse me, somebody just came in ..."

He hung up. Turned to the man who had just entered. The young lawyer said, "Now, how can I help you?"

The man said, "I'm here to hook up the phone."
In this case, Paul Harvey presented a legend as a true occurrence. The same story showed up much earlier in a 1964 joke book:
A new lawyer had just opened up his office. "Ah! A client already," he thought as he saw the door opening. "I must impress him."

He picked up the telephone. "No, I'm very sorry, but I can't take your case, even for $1,000," he said. "I'm just too busy."

He replaced the receiver and looked at his caller. "And now, what can I do for you?" he asked briskly.

"Nothing, really," was the reply. "I just came to connect your telephone."
But the basic story is much older than that, even, as these examples from decades earlier demonstrate:
[Cerf, 1946]

Young Dr. Anderson hung out his shingle for the first time on a Tuesday, but no patient showed up until Friday morning. When one came into the room, Dr. Anderson thought it advisable to impress him. He picked up his telephone and barked into it, "I have so many patients scheduled to visit me today that I am afraid I won't be able to get over to the hospital to perform that brain operation until six this evening." He banged up the receiver and turned to his visitor with a disarming smile.

"What seems to be paining you, my good man?" he said.

"Nothing is paining me," said the bewildered visitor. "I have just come to hook up your phone, sir."
 

[Williams, 1938]

He was a young lawyer and had just opened his office. Clientless, of course. Hearing his doorknob turn, he quickly picked up the telephone receiver. But, let him tell it.

"'Yes, Mr. S.,' I was saying as the stranger entered the office, 'I'll attend to that corporation matter for you. Mr. J. had me on the phone this morning and wanted me to settle a damage suit, but I had to put him off as I was too busy with other cases. But I'll manage to sandwich your case in between the others somehow. Yes. Yes. All right, good-bye.'

"Being sure, then, that I had duly impressed my prospective client, I hung up the receiver and turned to him.

"'Excuse me, sir,' the man said, 'but I'm from the telephone company. I've come to connect your instrument.'"
 

[The Wall Street Journal, 1920]

A successful old lawyer tells the following story anent the beginning of his professional life: "I had just installed myself in my office," he said, "had put in a phone and had preened myself for the first client who might come along when through the glass of my front door I saw a shadow. Yes it was doubtless some one to see me.

"Picture me, then, grabbing the nice shiny receiver of my new phone and plunging into an imaginary conversation. It ran something like this: "'Yes, Mr. S.,' I was saying at the stranger entered the office, 'I'll attend to that corporation matter for you. Mr. J. had me on the phone this morning and wanted me to settle a damage suit, but I had to put him off as I was too busy with other cases. But I'll manage to sandwich your case in between the others somehow. Yes. Yes. All right, good-by.'

"Being sure, then, that I had duly impressed my prospective client, I hung up the receiver and turned to him.

"'Excuse me sir,' the man said, 'but I'm from the telephone company. I've come to connect your instrument.'" — Houston Post.
This same legend sometimes appears in versions wherein the liar has reason for fibbing other than attempting to look important:
[Linkletter, 1967]

After moving into a new home, a woman in Detroit became weary of a succession of peddlers ringing her doorbell. When still another ring came, she yelled through the door, "I can't talk to you! I'm on a long-distance call." But the man kept leaning on her doorbell. Finally she threw open the door and began bawling him out. "I told you I was on the phone long distance," she said. "Why do you keep bothering me?" The man smiled and said softly, "Ma'am, I happen to be from the telephone company. I've come to connect your phone."
Barbara "call of the wiled" Mikkelson


Last updated:   16 June 2014

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Sources:

    Cerf, Bennett.   Anything for a Laugh.
    New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946   (p. 63).

    Harvey, Paul.   For What It's Worth.
    New York: Bantam, 1991.   ISBN 0-553-07720-1   (p. 141).

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 45-46).

    Linkletter, Art.   Oops! Or, Life's Awful Moments.
    Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967   (p. 71).

    Williams, Leewin B.   Master Book of Humorous Illustrations.
    New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1938   (p. 119).

    The Wall Street Journal.   "Pepper and Salt: A Bit Premature."
    16 January 1920   (p. 2).