Not long ago, I rode on a Paris Metro train from a station near Pere Lachaise to Pigalle and noticed that nearly every person in the crowded car was using a cell phone — texting, looking at Facebook, Twitter feeds, Tumblr and the rest. Their heads down, the passengers worked keypads with their thumbs; now and then one of them smiled or frowned because of something they saw or read, each of them periodically looked up from the screens to check the train’s progress, then got back to their digital business.
I stopped in at the d’Orsay to revisit some of my favorites — Denis, Vuillard, Derain, Emile Bernard, Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. The stone benches along the rail on the second floor were occupied by people using their cell phones, texting furiously, heads down, their eyes locked on memes, not on the art around them.
The other night, at a local restaurant, each member of a family at a nearby table waited for their food with eyes fixed on smartphones, not a word passing between them. They were communicating second-hand via microwave and satellite in lieu of speaking to one another and looking at one another, instead of sharing the moment together. Rather, they were trading abbreviations with texters on distant cell phones, exchanging emoticons with shadows, flat images on an illuminated screen.
We humans are capable of creating marvelous technological devices, then finding ways to use them to distance ourselves from one another, our communications stripped of all but superficial meaning, divorced from our surroundings, gone from consciousness when a screen goes dark. We trade a text or a badly composed Instagram photo for the beauty of the breath of another being as it fills the short space between us.
I am, in my way, as guilty as most when it comes to fleeing to the flat world of the smartphone, or the computer and modem. I follow a daily routine during which I wolf down a handful of old guy medications and chase the load with several cups of coffee. Synapses alight, I flee human company for the Internet; I check my e-mail, I go to several news sites (The Guardian, in particular, because I trust journalists who write with an English accent). Finally, I traipse to Facebook where, if I am not careful, I will waste several hours perusing …what? Pictures of pets? Videos of kids doing hula hoop tricks? Bitsy and Jimmy dressed up for the prom? I try to limit myself to 30 minutes on Facebook, watching the clock and mousing my way home when my time is up, so I can begin to write and paint. I admit, I am not always successful: the allure of quips and snarky exchanges among “friends” — especially the “innaleckshuls” — is addictive. The addiction is not quite as bad as some of the monkeys I carried when I was younger, but it’s powerful, nonetheless.
Friday, I am sent on a mission, asked by my youngest daughter to leave my studio, abandon the keyboard, change into presentable clothing, and go to the elementary school here in Siberia With a View to pick up my grandson, Banzai. I motor downtown and park my ratty truck with the peeling paint and rust spots on the hood between two near-new SUVs in the school lot. A mom sitting in her BMW scowls at me as I waddle up a small hill to the school playground, the hood on my black sweatshirt drawn over my head.
I position myself against a wall and wait for the bell to ring, for a wave of youngsters to wash from the entrance of the building. Clouds have descended over the East Range, falling below 9,000 feet, hiding Square Top, Blackhead and Nipple Mountain. It’s starting to rain.
A short, wide woman walks across the playground and stations herself next to me. Right next to me. Her elbow touches mine. We huddle under the eaves of the building, the only two people in sight. She looks up at me, the thick lenses of her glasses smudged with fingerprints and wet with rain, her hands in the pockets of her coat, then she looks away.
I decide to be sociable.
“We need this rain,” I say, “but three days is enough, don’t you think?”
“It’s still raining,” she says, gazing across the playground and the town below to the clouds that are no doubt dumping snow at higher elevations, on Wolf Creek. “But I wore my raincoat, so I’m dry.”
“That’s good,” I say. “I hope the kids brought their coats; it’s starting to get cold.”
“As soon as I pick up Daryl and take him home, I’m going to my guitar lesson,” she says.
“Oh, well, that’s great,” I say.
“I’m still having trouble with my fingering. I think the fret board is too wide and my pinky finger is too short, you know?” She pulls her left hand from her pocket and wiggles her little finger in the air in front of her face. She laughs.
“Wow, well keep working at it,” I say.
“Ha ha, I know. We all have little hands, don’t we? Yours are tiny and Bob’s are small and his fingers are fat. Ha ha. The other night, I could hardly hold that glass of beer and I spilled some on Bob’s pizza. He didn’t even notice. Did you see that? I really need to grow some extra fingers. Longer ones. Ha ha.”
I look at her. She is staring off into the distance, her eyes unfocused; she takes her right hand from her pocket and scratches at one of the sores on her cheek with a ragged fingernail. She continues to talk: about the cake Betsy is making from scratch, about avocados, about Donnie and Cindy, about American Idol, and the dogs.
The dumb cluck is talking on a phone, but the phone is nowhere to be seen. She must have an earpiece that I can’t see. She gestures, she shouts, she laughs. She is standing right next to me, for fuck’s sake. The wall of the building is a hundred feet long and this halfwit stands right next to me, jabbering at full volume, oblivious to everything around her. Everything, as in the old fat guy in the black hoodie, standing right beside her.
Worse yet, she deals in nonsense, trivial crap. It’s not like she’s discussing some of the finer points in Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books or arguing an acceptable solution to the problems in Ukraine.
I’d been answering her.
A movie title: Morons in the Mist.
What in the hell is this woman thinking as she stands beside me, her elbow next to mine, her mouth in overdrive?
I decide to continue to carry on a conversation with her. I turn to face her.
“Get me a box of Velveeta,” she says. “The big box.” She gestures as she says “big.”
“Well, OK,” I say, and I mimic her gesture. “But, if they’re on sale, do you want me to get two? After all, Velveeta keeps on the shelf for a couple decades. It makes the best mac and cheese ever, don’t you think?”
She looks at me briefly. She seems concerned.
“And I might need you to bring my guitar to Tommy’s house, cause I gotta take Daryl to the church for the afterschool bible study and I won’t have time to come home.”
I make a point of gazing into the distance as I speak. “I’ll do it but, before I put the guitar in the case, I can trim that fret board for you. I have a table saw in the basement. By the time you drop off Daryl for his indoctrination session, I can have the fret board narrower and that short pinky of yours won’t be a problem. I probably won’t have time to sand the edge though, so you need to be careful not to get splinters. And be careful on the roads when you drive to the church, they get slippery when they’re wet and you can’t afford another citation. Say a prayer, that’ll probably help.”
She looks at me again, her cloudy eyes widening behind her dirty lenses, the sore on her cheek oozing a droplet of plasma. She is alarmed.
“There’s someone here who’s really weird and he’s bothering me. I don’t know why. He’s talking to me. No, I don’t know who he is.” She looks at me as she speaks.
“I don’t know either,” I say. I look at her as I speak. “In fact, the older I get, the less I know. Especially about myself. That’s why I’m not a preacher at your church. But I know weird when I see it, and someone standing in the rain, right next to another person, blabbing at full volume on an invisible phone is about as weird as it gets. I don’t even know her name. Wish I did, though. She likes Velveeta.”
Problem solved: she scurries off, yapping as she goes. “No, don’t call the cops, not yet. I’ll let you know if he follows me. Oh, and a can of Campbell’s chicken and noodle; Bruce has a sore throat.”
“My best to Bruce,” I say as she passes. “Tell him to get well soon. Play a tune for him on your guitar and make sure he takes a couple of aspirin.”
The bell rings and the kids pour forth into the rainy afternoon. Bonz runs down the sidewalk and jumps on me. I kiss his cheek; I hug him and we talk. It seems the girl he is fond of said she is going to marry him instead of Conner. He smiles and looks down; I can see he is embarrassed. Thrilled, but embarrassed. He holds out a large sheet of paper with a drawing on it. Raindrops fall on the paper.
“I made this for you,” he says. He is looking up at me again; he grabs my hand and I look at the drawing.
“It’s fantastic,” I say. “Thank you. I love you so much; you’re my favorite big guy in the universe.”
“It’s a cowboy owl,” says Bonz. “We had the worst lunch ever today. Chicken with this icky gravy on it. I can still taste it.”
He stops and pulls at my hand.
“Bend over, and smell my breath.”