"Hi, Daddy! Yeah, the train's packed!... So, how's your rectal abscess?"


















































































































Too Close for Comfort

In the cell-phone age, everything you never wanted to know about everyone else is always within earshot.

By John D. Spalding

Is instant communication making us more connected, or less, actually hindering human interaction? Don’t ask me. I have a cell phone but rarely use it, much to the frustration of my wife. It took her years to convince me to bring my phone with me when I leave the house. And it will take her several more years to convince me to turn it on, and by then either I’ll have lost my phone, or we’ll all have communications chips implanted in our heads and it won’t matter.

But if pressed, I’d say cell phones bring us closer together, often much closer than we’d like to be. Let me tell you a little story.

For years I commuted to New York City from the Connecticut 'burbs on the Metro-North train. Day after day I saw the same faces, but we never spoke. It’s almost a rule: Do whatever you want on the train—finish some paper work, take a nap, eat a bucket of wings—just don’t ever chat up the person sitting next to you. Throwing up on them would be a lesser social offense.

Still, I managed to feel a deep connection to many of my fellow commuters. In some cases, I knew their personal and professional lives better than I did my own friends’—all thanks to the cell phone! Overhearing loud, one-way conversations, I learned who was going to St. Barth’s on vacation. I learned what people wanted for dinner, and sometimes didn’t want for dinner (“no more goddamn Italian!”). I discovered whose kids were medicated, and whose kids needed to be. One commuter, I’d learned, had forgotten to pick up an expensive coat for his wife’s birthday that night; rather than face hell’s fury at home, he barked into his cell, he was going to get off at the next stop and catch a train back into the city. “So, I’ll check into a hotel and meet you at Cipriani at, say, 10,” he said.

See? Without the advent of cell-phone technology, I never would have known all that fun stuff. My fellow commuters would have remained to me merely silent faces buried in newspapers.

Granted, not everyone shares my appreciation for the bonds, however unintentional, that cell phones forge between strangers. Take the intense middle-aged woman who sat on the other end of the car from me one day. It was well after 10 am, post-rush hour, and the train was at most half full. The woman was wearing a dark business suit, and she’d taken off her shoes and put her feet up on the bench across from her. She might as well have been stretching out in her own living room. She spoke on her cell phone at a volume my two-and-half-year-old twins would identify as her “outdoor voice.”

Few on the train paid attention to her, merely shaking their heads as the woman went on to a friend about her “killer schedule” and her “asshole boss” and “back-stabbing” colleagues. She worked in sales, and she’d caught a late train that morning because she had a doctor’s appointment for a Pap smear test. She was going to Chicago the following week, which would have been a “total fucking waste” if her boyfriend, David, wasn’t coming out to join her for a few days and taking her to Morton’s.

I’d hoped to do the Times crossword puzzle, but I couldn’t hear myself think over the woman’s voice, so I eventually folded the paper, closed my eyes and, whether I wanted to or not, learned her life story. She’s divorced and has a bratty 16-year-old daughter who she’s convinced hates her. Her brother is a “bastard” and her ex is a “flaming idiot,” who married a bimbo half his age and has "smashed up more Porsches than all the crash-test dummies in Stuttgart.”

Her elderly mother lives in the Hamptons and isn’t well—“maybe early Alzheimer’s; we don’t know.” She’d visited her mother the previous weekend: “Let’s just say, thank God for Valium.”

And not all was well, it turned out, with the woman’s boyfriend, David. “I think that bastard is sleeping around!” she exclaimed at one point. Her plan, as best I could tell, was to get one of the new secretaries in her office to hit on David at his favorite bar one night, and “see if he bites.”

By the time we reached Grand Central, I felt I knew this woman intimately, all the personal details from her family woes and work battles to her gynecological concerns. The fact that I had no idea who the hell she was was irrelevant. I didn’t think twice about addressing her as the confidante she’d turned me into, whether she meant to or not.

“You know,” I said, sidling up to her after we stepped off the train. “I think you’re being a little hard on David.”

“What?” she said, turning to me.

“Your boyfriend, David. He sounds like a better guy than your ex-husband.”

“Who the hell are you?” she asked.

“Just a guy who sat way in the back of the train. While you talked on your cell phone.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” she said, turning and speeding off down the platform.

“Good luck on the Pap smear,” I shouted after her, supportively. “I hope it’s only a yeast infection!”

If you’d like to comment on this article, click here.

To read "The Wireless Soul," Lincoln Swain's companion essay, click here.


Email article Print article

John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was John Bunyan's Reformation.

Back to top


May 7, 2010

The Mother of Mother's Day
By Mary Beth Crain
Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, hated flowers, candy, and greeting cards. Our kind of mom!

January 28, 2010

Securing Your Pet's Post-Rapture Future
By Mary Beth Crain
What will happen to Christians' pets after the Rapture? No worries. These animal-loving atheists will feed them.

January 13, 2010

Whither Wheaton?
By Andrew Chignell
The evangelical flagship college charts a new course.

December 21, 2009

Ho, Ho, Hollywood
By Mary Beth Crain
My four top Christmas Movies.

December 14, 2009

Bad Dream Girls
By Mary Beth Crain
Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean remind us that in America, dumb and dumber equals rich and richer.

July 16, 2009

The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
By Stephanie Hunt
In South Carolina, Vacation Bible School gets Sanforized.

July 16, 2009

Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
By Mary Beth Crain
Answer: Betcha Can't Have Just One!

December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Blues
By Ondine Galsworth
Your best friend is dead. Your mother is bi-polar. And you've lived your life as a fake Catholic. Where do you go from here?

December 23, 2008

Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
By Mary Beth Crain
What would it be like if today's techno-spoiled kids were forced to have a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas?

November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
By Mary Beth Crain
In times of fear and despair, gratitude is sometimes all we've got left.

November 16, 2008

Seeing Red
By Stephanie Hunt
Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.

October 29, 2008

Ghost Writer
By Mary Beth Crain
Our senior editor talks about her new book, "Haunted U.S. Battelfields," the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.

October 26, 2008

The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
By Matthew Streib
Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.

October 11, 2008

Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
By Mary Beth Crain
Confronted with a scathing indictment of abuse of power, Governor Palin thumbs her nose at the "Troopergate" report.

October 4, 2008

Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
By Mary Beth Crain
This hockey mom belongs in the penalty box.

To view more articles, visit
SoMA's archive

Copyright © 2019 SoMAreview, LLC. All Rights Reserved