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.
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.
"Sometimes, I want to grab the phones out of their hands and shove it up their asses," a manager said of the unrelenting flow of customers who offer little respect for public airspace. The manager, who asked that his name and the name of the restaurant not be used so as not to offend customers, says he has to deal with them as nicely as possible, despite what he sees as their rude behavior.
"I understand people need to use their phones," he said, "but when I get a call, I step outside. It's just the right thing to do."
Of course, when some of his customers that day weren't doing "the right thing," Jammer Man had to step in. For almost an hour, as he munched on a burrito, he took down one pestiferous talker after another.
"I'm not sure what the problem is," a man shouted into his phone on his third attempt. "We keep getting disconnec— Hello? Hello?"
If Jammer Man is the hero of this story and these blabbermouths are the bad guys, what does that make the FCC? In Jammer Man's melodramatic interior narrative, federal regulators, who offer comfort and protection to the world's blabbers, are the Men in Black, the sinister operators of black helicopters who swoop in in the name of some meaningless law.
But New Times, going to the FCC source, found more befuddlement than robotic evil. The man answering the call to the number listed on the FCC website, 888-CALL-FCC, said his name was Pedro. Questions about jammers should be addressed to the FCC's media bureau, he said. He transferred us to a woman who said, "We oversee and answer questions about television and radio. You need the wireless communications bureau."
That bureau passed New Times along to the consumer and government affairs bureau. A man calling himself Bob answered there and asked for the caller's name and phone number. He said he couldn't provide his full name, offering a code instead. When New Times asked about the use of the jammer, he said he would email a "fact sheet, f-a-c-t, on jamming wireless devices." Then he transferred New Times to the director of media relations, whose voice-mail said she would be out of the office for a few weeks.
It had occurred to Jammer Man that, during his righteous phone-jamming campaign, innocent people may have been cut off too. Jammer Man's aim is true, but his path of destruction is wide. In the trenches where telecommunications renegades play, there comes a certain degree of collateral damage. Yes, innocent bystanders who were using discretion in their conversations can get cut off. Legitimate business deals may be quashed. The kid dialing feverishly to become the tenth caller to his favorite radio show might not get the passes to Beowulf in IMAX he'd so hoped for. Is this the price our society must pay?
The fight, Jammer Man insists, is more than childish prankery (even if it's not much more). Jammer Man works to bring people together — by tearing some phone conversations apart. Loud cell-phone users disconnect themselves from the people in their immediate physical surroundings, the superhero says. They, in effect, put up an invisible bubble that tells the rest of us they would rather communicate with someone in a different geographic locale.
Jammer Man simply disconnects that disconnection.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In a crowded elevator, where cell phones rarely used to work, a person can hold his or her peers hostage with a single call. The rest of the passengers stand still, watching the floors tick by, waiting anxiously for the doors to open so they might taste sweet freedom.
This was the case in an elevator in a Fort Lauderdale office building recently. The salesman on the phone went on about not making a dime before commission. "You can trust me," he yelled into his phone, ignoring eye-rolls. "I'm not going to dick you around."
But before he got an answer, the crowded elevator passengers got relief. Jammer Man slipped his hand into his pocket and tapped the tiny peacemaker. No one else could have guessed what had happened, but the rest of the group rode down in silence, a few with satisfied grins.
Another win for the good guys. Another victory for Jammer Man.