Jammer Man to the Rescue

An anonymous superhero steps in to clear the air of blah-blah-blah

He came into the bookstore huffing loudly into his cellphone, ignoring turned heads and annoyed glares. His voice shot across the room, a harsh, grating sound, like broken glass in a blender. It jolted our hero as he thumbed through a Cormac McCarthy novel about soulless, murderous heathens.

"Oh, that sounds fan-tas-tic," Mr. It's-My-World-and-You-Can-Suck-Off said, laughing into his phone. "Where did you go then?" He flicked his hair, his hand to his ear. "Fan-tas-tic. That's really fan-tas-tic. We were there last summer, and I know it's just fantastic."

Our hero — let's call him Jammer Man — reached into his pocket and felt cool metal on the tips of his fingers. His thumb slid down the side of a little box until he felt a small, round button on the side.

alvaro diaz-rubio

As Mr. IMWYCSO walked past him, Jammer Man pushed the button, holding it an extra second to be sure.

It took the man a few seconds to notice. "If you have a chance to get up to a little chateau... hello... hello?" He looked at his phone. "Hello, Charles?"

He shook his head and looked again at the phone, moving it from side to side, presumably to get a signal. Then he closed it, slid it into his linen pocket, bought the book he was looking for, and left in silence.

Ah, relief. Jammer Man felt suffused with a fantastic, benign power, like the feeling you might get from smacking a corporate attorney with his own briefcase or spanking a compulsive shopper with her Nordstrom bag.

The metal box, black and about the size of a cell phone, is a device called a cell-phone jammer. When Jammer Man presses that round button on the side, it cuts off any cell-phone conversations inside a 20-foot radius. It doesn't make a sound, and the small green light at the top that illuminates when the jammer is on can't be seen when it's in Jammer Man's pants pocket.

He had ordered the jammer over the internet from China. Buying such a device is not against the law in the United States. Using it, however, is. So is selling or marketing one. Fines for a first offense can be as high as $11,000 a day for each violation, and offenders could be subject to criminal prosecution.

Technically, using a cell-phone jammer could violate the Communications Act of 1934, the same act that replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission — the bureaucratic dogleg of regulation and oversight known as the FCC.

When activated, jammers send out a powerful radio signal. Cell phones are essentially handheld radios, and the jammer's signal is strong enough to overload the cell phone and cut the call. If you were to look at the signal indicator on a phone as it's being jammed, you'd see it immediately power up to "full bars," then quickly go to no signal. Once the jammer is off or the cell user leaves the radius, the phone works normally again.

Frequencies like the ones used by cell-phone companies are licensed and protected by the FCC, just like radio and television transmitters. Service providers pay billions of dollars every year to maintain their networks, which the FCC promises to protect from outside interference.

Interference like Jammer Man's little pacificator, for example. Etiquette sharks, anarchists, and general deviants like Jammer Man can buy jammers from overseas sellers on websites like www.phonejammer.com and www.dealextreme.com. They are as cheap as $50 for a small, personal jammer like his or as expensive as thousands of dollars for industrial-strength contraptions that might be used by discriminating restaurateurs, hoteliers, or theater operators.

It is a powerful sword of passive-aggressive justice, and Jammer Man wields it over South Florida. He used it in Wilton Manors grocery stores to pop obnoxious Bluetooth users in their conversational jaws. At the movies in Pompano Beach, he sat in the middle of the theater to guarantee that nobody in that room but Tommy Lee Jones would be having a conversation. In traffic on the Miami Beach strip, he cut the call of a swerving driver who had one hand on the wheel and the other at her ear. When she lost her signal, she put the phone down and drove straight. At the Orange Bowl BCS game, he thwarted some loudmouthed Virginia Tech fans (though Kansas gave the Hokies the ultimate insult).

Looks frozen in alarm and bafflement all around.

Because using the jammer is illegal, Jammer Man — like other outlaw superheros — cannot reveal his identity. But the secrecy of his selfless work gives Jammer Man a richly imaginative inner life, with innocent bystanders saved from aimless babble and scoundrels succumbing to J Man's ruthless superpowers. He imagines newspaper headlines spinning off printing presses, like in the movies: "Jammer Man Saves Supermarket!" or "Anonymous Hero Jammer Man Cuts Obnoxious Calls, Wins Beautiful Heiress."

On a recent weekday, a Mexican grill near downtown Fort Lauderdale was packed with lunchtime diners. It was a mostly business crowd, and plenty of the customers had their phones and PDAs handy. The line at the counter was long, and the air filled with "Can you get those copies on my desk?" and "Are we going to the bar tonight?" — echoes of singular conversations. When it came time for a woman in her 20s to order, she said nothing to the man behind the register. So engrossed was she in cell-phone conversation that she hadn't even noticed it was her turn. The man behind the counter looked at the next customer and took his order, bypassing the heedless woman.

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