The patient was a pager.
Remember pagers? They were the razzle-dazzle innovation that kept doctors tethered to patients, drug dealers tethered to customers, government officials tethered to underlings, reporters tethered to editors. In the 1980s and early 1990s, everybody carried them. They beeped. They chirped. Or, in what their manufacturers called their "silent" mode, they vibrated in pockets and purses, or clipped to belts.
Now try to find someone who has one. Beepers have become technological fossils, on the way to extinction in the world's rush to cell phones and all-in-one devices that can handle e-mail messages and browse the Web. Beepers are a leftover from the days when a cell phone was a novelty the size of a brick with a battery that lasted minutes, not days. Cell phones were geeky, not glamorous.
Shats, 52, rode the wave of pager technology up, and now he is riding it down. He has spent the last 19 years in a cluttered room with a meat-locker door and shiny metal walls that are covered in takeout menus and schematic circuit diagrams. His job is to repair pagers, to bring these relics of the early digital age back to life for the few who cling to them.
He works for a company in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, called CPR Technology. The three letters once stood for Certified Pager Repair. Now the pager business is all but on life support, and the company makes more money retailing accessories for Nextel phones online and importing equipment that manufacturers can use to test electronics products before shipping them from the factory.
But CPR Technology still repairs pagers, one of only a few companies in the New York metropolitan region to still do so.
"There are a lot of people who will be using this until the end of time," said the president of CPR Technology, Charlie Tepper, 46.
Still, the numbers show that the end of time may not be far off. About 45 million pagers were in use nationwide in 1999.
Now, the total is 7.4 million, down from 8.2 million a year ago, according to Brad Dye, a wireless messaging consultant who is editor and publisher of three newsletters including The Paging Information Resource.
He says the average monthly paging bill is about $9, while CTIA--the Wireless Association, a trade group that represents cellular companies, says the comparable figure for a cell phone is $49.30. CTIA says there are 219.4 million cell phone subscribers.
"It isn't that people didn't like pagers," Dye said. "It's just that it was hard for the paging industry to compete with cell phones."
Once, pagers were a status symbol that demanded attention, their little screens displaying strings of numerals (although some pagers could also transmit letters). Was that a telephone number, or the primitive slang from the days before text messaging?
Only the recipient knew whether a message was the code for "I love you" from a girlfriend or "the cops are coming" from a drug dealer's lookout.
Now pagers are a punch line on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, which featured a character who described himself as the "beeper king" after working his way to the top of a pager business. Another character said he could not give up his beeper because he was expecting a call from 1985.
It is enough to make real-life beeper kings wince. But Robert G. Daigle, a vice president of Evalueserve, a research company that tracks communications trends, has a word for what has happened to pagers.
"They've been disintermediated," he said. "It's a big fancy business term you use to talk about people who are no longer needed in business."
Nowadays the nation's largest pager company is USA Mobility, which was born in 2004 in the merger of two smaller companies that had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001. A spokesman said USA Mobility now provides service to 4.2 million pagers nationwide.
Hospitals continue to use pagers, in part because, unlike cell phones, pager signals reach into buildings without causing concern about interfering with medical equipment. Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, for example, provides more than 3,000 pagers to doctors, residents and interns. But Mount Sinai knows it will have to come up with an alternative before too long.
"I think they will be a thing of the past in a couple of years," said Eunice Davis, assistant director of telecommunications for Mount Sinai. "Not many companies make pagers." Motorola, which dominated the market for pagers in its heyday, stopped making them in 2001. But that created opportunities for technicians like Shats and engineering entrepreneurs like Tepper.
As Dye of The Paging Information Resource said: "The 40 million pagers that people quit using, they didn't throw them all in the trash. A lot of those have been refurbished."
Which is what happens inside Shats' little room, where patterns dance across his oscilloscope as he connects probes to troubleshoot an ailing pager. The metal walls keep out electronic interference, including pager signals, Shats explained.
How old was the patient he was working on? His boss, Tepper, reached into a file and pulled out the manual for that model. "Copyright 1989," he read.
Some of the repair equipment Shats uses is older than that. Just outside the room is a row of computers that can be used to reconfigure the electronic code that gives a pager its identity. The computers are so old that they run MS-DOS, not Windows. Tepper talked about the days when he ran a company, MetroPage, which marketed Nynex paging equipment through retail stores.
"The main clients were doctors, drug dealers and businessmen," Tepper said. "We were behind a thick piece of plexiglass and had two dogs, a Rottweiler and a German shepherd."
There were threats, which Tepper remembers as "if my pager isn't on by the end of today, something's going to happen."
Since then, he has diversified.
"We would not be able to survive if we were only repairing pagers," Tepper said. "Wouldn't be possible. In our heyday, we had around eight or nine people working on double shifts," Tepper said. "At one point, we had three delivery cars, drivers with two-way radios. We'd be running around, picking up pagers to be repaired and connected. We'd be here till midnight, making sure these things were fixed and out the door the next day."
In the 1990s, Tepper and Shats took pagers apart and "reverse-engineered" their liquid-crystal displays, the windows that display the messages, so they could produce their own. Then Tepper found a factory in China to manufacture them.
For several years, CPR Technology sold 300,000 to 400,000 such displays to other pager repairers, Tepper said. That branch of his business has fallen by 90 percent in the last couple of years, he said. But he became an importer for a South Korean company that makes equipment used to test newfangled devices like Treo 650 cell phones.
These days he mostly leaves the repairs to Shats, who is not living the lonely life of a Maytag repairman. But things are not as exciting as, say, the time he opened a pager and discovered that it had become home to dozens of cockroaches.
"I closed very fast," he said, "and put tape around it to keep them from getting out."
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