Updated: February 15, 2013 6:26AM
Walking in downtown Chicago, you pass thousands of people. Most you hardly notice, never mind remember.
Odd aspects do sometimes stick in the mind. Strange fashions. One day, within five minutes, two women passed wearing the same Burberry-pattern rubber boots — a look I never saw before or since. Maybe it was popular only for that single morning.
Or there was this lady, at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. It must have been spring, because it was raining, and she had an umbrella open. I couldn’t see her face, but the umbrella had an orange and beige cityscape of domes and towers with “FIRENZE” — Florence — written around the edge. A souvenir of a trip to Italy, probably. She was waiting for the light to cross Franklin.
Now, I’ve been to Florence, lovely city, home of Dante, the Duomo cathedral, the Uffizi Gallery. The good feeling that comes from recalling Florence swelled my heart. As I hurried across Randolph, framing something to say that would reflect our common experience. Maybe “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...” — the opening lines of “The Inferno.” Or, more likely, “Ah Florence, lovely place,” or words to that effect. She would smile back. A moment of connection in the anonymous whir of the city.
But when I got to the corner, the umbrella tilted, and I saw she had those iPod ear buds screwed into her ears, and was gazing fixedly at the WALK signal across the street, ready, set like a runner in the blocks, waiting for the pistol shot to go. I wasn’t about to shout my greeting over her music. I have no memory of what she looked like, I just recall the umbrella and the ear buds and me standing there, finger in the air, wanting to say something, stymied.
I get that a lot. Because I am a PWC — a Person With Chattiness. I talk to strangers, or try to. It’s a shameful disability — to be verbose, a prattler. Truly embarrassing. People feel no qualms about discussing their grotesque physical or mental conditions. But being a blabbermouth is the last taboo. Particularly for a man. Women still can be gabby, gossipy. We expect that. But we want our men to be stoic, silent — think of Clint Eastwood, flexing a muscle in his jaw, squinting at the horizon, hoarsely whispering a few hard, short, sunbaked words that vanish into the desert air.
Me, I step into an elevator, size everybody up, opinions blooming within, a swelling gasbag of verbiage, ready to pop. But everyone in the elevator is gazing down at their phones. Silence. The doors open, they shuffle off. And it’s only going to get worse. When I read about the approach of Google’s Project Glass — eyeglasses that project the Internet into your field of vision — I felt a dazed bewilderment that there could be a market for such a thing. Email at home, at work, on your phone — must we also continually jam it between our eyes and the outside world? Apparently so.
Am I carrying on? Sorry. A sign of age. I’m trying to change. To consult my phone more and talk less. Here my wife is helpful. When we first bought our house, I’d be sitting on the front porch, notice a neighbor down the block and hop up, rush over and shoot the breeze, or try to. One day my wife dryly observed, “You’ll notice they never come over here.” That ended that. Now I plant my butt firmly in my chair, though some inner yappy puppy in my head is still scrabbling his claws against the windowpanes, wanting out.
And yet ... I take the Metra downtown. When the train is crowded, and somebody reluctantly plops next to me, I sometimes try to make conversation. Usually I give up, when it dawns on me the poor fellow is cringing away from this chatterbox next to him.
This is without Google’s eBlinders (which I imagine will include sensors projecting HD images of the outside world onto the lens — grudging kudos to a company that can figure out how to charge people to show them what’s directly in front of their eyes).
So if you’re reading this in 2032, on some “Fallacies of the Myopic Idiots of the Past” website you’ve called up to occupy yourself as you stumble down Wacker Drive, wordlessly careening off your fellow pedestrians as you blindly bump past each other, the occasional eyeglass “ping!” warning you of an approaching curb, give me credit. It’s not that I’m oblivious. I realize that this is in vain, that this whole living-in-the-world, talking-to-people bit is doomed. I know this is the 2012 version of cursing the Model T. Yet I can’t help it. Thirty years ago, I thought cellphones were a passing fad — it turns out that they were here to stay. It is real life that is the passing fad.