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!”
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To read "The Wireless Soul," Lincoln Swain's companion essay, click here.
John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was John Bunyan's Reformation.
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