New York City can be divided into two sociological groups: people who text, and people who don’t text.
The concept of telescoping information and response into an incredibly limited format is ancient; the current version unfortunately lacks the impact of a telegram sent, say, in the 1940’s or 50’s, when abbreviated language was more like a huge zipfile of meaning. It seems now that something is completely missing. It's cheap, like verbal fast food. Of course, people are different now—people don’t understand things that I take for granted.
Repetitive, useless motion has certainly damaged our brain and occasionally wrists and hands… but at least I’m moderately aware that the ability to reply 40 times in a minute can dilute the message. I’ve also begun to believe that I am some evaporating breed of dark brooding guilty emotional wreck that is on its way to extinction. I'm sure statistically fewer people suffer alone in dark rooms; they now take drugs, and beat their landladies with wooden beams. They OD on massive amounts of mind-numbing medication or they binge drink and crash vehicles.
There is a blind man in my neighborhood; I see him at the library and we speak. I feel this enormous embarrassment in his presence—me with my free coffee refills and 20-year-old boots—for what I don’t lack. Is that the inverse of entitlement? My kids are pissed off that they don’t have a trust-fund-sized allowance. They despise my refusal to carry a cell phone and my Luddite habits-- my appreciation of old, used things, of kindness. The fact that I listen to the old neighborhood Polish holocaust survivor for long minutes, the same incredible stories over and over—how she jumped from a plane, crawled through animal tunnels, hid under feed-bags, starved… and how no one writes her memoir. I am nearly compelled to volunteer--- and then the conversation inevitably reverts to her complaining about her daughter who had no children, after heroically managing to survive the concentration camps so she could pro-create, now her progeny has no wish to respect this. I’m sure her daughter texts.
People who text--- a theoretically silent thing--- tend to be loud. I notice this at the gym--- older people are quieter; they read the Times, watch MSNBC, ESPN, Law and Order. Younger people have the screen on—usually the Kardashians, if I took an actual poll-- their ipods going, and they are tapping wildly at their smartphones. Occasionally they answer calls--- frowned on, by notices posted everywhere—but who reads these? The people who already knew this, of course. So they speak—loudly--- didn’t their preschool teachers program them to use their ‘inside voice’? Apparently not. When their friends come, they converse—so that it’s hard to ignore--- about their problems, about the market, about their weekends, their hangovers, their eating patterns---who they love and hate. I try to love them. I forgive them, the way someone in some supermarket is forgiving my own kids for their habitual tasteless narcissistic ‘loudness’.
I think about the blind man--- how embarrassed I am that he must witness this behavior--- like he’s some superior sensitive being, because he's aware that he annoys people enough by his disability… but I’m still sure he listens and smells things with more perception than I. And he’s probably irritated by my excessive politeness and guilty kindness. Maybe he’d like to punch me.
Looking around on the C train downtown this morning, I could pick out the tourists. Some of them look less mean. Some of them are dressed differently or wearing new items they mistake for New York ‘Style’. Some of them have old-world charm and you can feel their inherited sense of family. New Yorkers are always darting their furtive eyes around, looking at their phones, checking each other out or making a huge effort to appear too cool to look. But you can feel their competitive gleeful flaunting of whatever it is they are wearing or reading or texting on.
I am in such tight financial straits, I can’t imagine even carrying an ipad on a crowded train where someone could steal it. How do all these people afford their iphone plans? Their shoes and multiple bags? My rich friend gave me a gorgeous designer bag and I still carry my $10 one--- the expensive one looks a) comically out of place with my thrift-level clothing choices b) pretentious and c)like maybe I bought it on Craigslist just to carry on the street. Truth is, it’s heavy. And I don’t need to be wearing my sins and savings in public simultaneously.
The other truth is, my resistance to text is annoying to others. They don’t want a pay-phone call, and they have little sympathy in fact for middle-aged people who are not fashionably dressed. For aging rock musicians who get on the crosstown bus with a gig-bag like they are trying to act like a kid. I mean, when you’re young and carefree and hot, you can ‘affect’ the down-sizing style of grunge or vintage mix, and the guys in Starbucks will still compete to take your order, will flirt and ask you about your music, will show up at your gig and look at you with those eyes the romance novels have made a cliché. Your messy hair falls on your face in that charming way that makes everyone want to brush it back, just to touch you. I stand patiently and invisibly in line now, and remember that person as a kind of fictional character in a favorite book.
So my new prayer is ‘please God, don’t make me have to apologize’. I don’t need to be cute and admired, or even served with respect. I just want to avoid accidents and serious injury and maintain a compassionate demeanor. I don’t want any false pity or attention. I want to hold back the tears, politely excuse myself from over-intervention in the lives of the tiny subset who are less fortunate than I am and sense my excessive empathy. I don’t think I’d ever punch anyone because they’re callously annoying and intrusive, and I don’t want anyone to want to punch me because I’m a nasty old library-user who too often confuses kindness with guilt. I am going to try not to find myself navigating the streets, uttering ‘sorry’ like a verbal tic to texters and phone yappers who are walk-weaving like drunkards. I feel like a polite old British grand-dad, and curse myself for this repetitive, useless act that is undoubtedly wearing away at my edge like an arthritic joint. Please. Jesus, even that is annoying.