The two women, approximately age 40, dressed in standard-issue black tights, were sitting so close to me that I caught the not-unpleasant scent of post-workout—Yoga? Pilates? Zumba?—sweat, with an occasional hint of flowery eau de cologne. They were in the midst of an earnest discussion of an incipient divorce; the dark-haired woman, with damp tendrils of hair adhering to her neck, wanted to dump her husband, who was, exasperatingly, completely clueless.
The woman’s friend, her blond hair stretched into a painful-looking ponytail, nodded and clucked and agreed enthusiastically with the indignant litany of the husband’s faults, failures and general fecklessness.
“I know, I know,” said the blonde friend, pursing her lips and shaking her head. “I get it. I hear you.”
The problem was, I heard her, too. But there was no awareness, or more likely, no concern, that their intimate conversation was being broadcast to every corner of the mid-size coffee emporium. This wasn’t a question of eavesdropping or not minding my own business. The women did not lower their voices or adopt the usual conspiratorial whispers as they proceeded to eviscerate the oblivious hubby.
Scenes similar to the one described are played out every day in coffee shops, restaurants, doctors offices, airport lounges, grocery stores, elevators, lavatories and all other public spaces that in former times demanded a modicum of discretion from homo sapiens making use of those spaces. Now, you can be entertained, titillated or simply appalled by people in public spaces discussing in ordinary decibels their failing marriages, harrowing divorces, family squabbles and workplace treacheries.
In the wake of disclosures of government spying, with the attendant indignation about violations of privacy, the ubiquitous and out-loud disclosures of personal travails—who cares what total strangers hear?—seems at first somewhat perplexing. But when you think about it, people gabbing at length and in detail in public spaces, inflicting on innocent bystanders their personal grievances, is not so surprising.
For a long time now, all of us have had no choice but to acquiesce to the universal rudeness and cheesy revelations of cell-phone—now known as personal digital appliances—louts and loutesses. We have all been treated to pompous business types boasting of deals as soon as the plane lands, or winced as a red-faced churl spews obscenities into his flip-phone in a hospital waiting room, or cringed as a gum-cracking gal in the row behind you at a Jazz game excoriates her mother-in-law. (My favorite was a dapper gent pulling into London’s Waterloo Station telling his wife that he was still in Brussels, followed immediately by an eager call to his girlfriend, instructing her to turn down the sheets for his imminent arrival at her flat.)
It is now well-documented by various researchers at institutes of higher learning that as soon as human beings utter vocables into their smartphones, they become oblivious to circumambient phenomena, principally fellow members of their species, sentient or otherwise. Somehow, because they are talking to an unseen presence, they think they are unheard by anyone in the vicinity. They are transported through the wireless ether to another place, and no longer inhabit their actual physical environment.
It is quite easy, therefore, for veteran cell-phone users to ignore their present physical environment, and everyone in it, when talking to a real person rather than a disembodied voice. The immediate world falls away, and as far as the in-the-flesh conversationalists are concerned, other people don’t exist, even if they are close enough to catch every word uttered, as well as appreciate damp swirls of hair along the neck and enjoy the sweat scent of recently concluded physical exertion.
Now that I can be entertained, engrossed or edified (I am now well beyond being shocked) by intimate conversations in public spaces, I have stopped reading novels, or even going to the movies. Novels and movies once were the most convenient vehicles for getting inside someone’s head and heart. One had the illusion of knowing the secret thoughts of characters of vastly different conditions and circumstances. Now, all I have to do is to plop down at the local Starbucks and get the dramatic lowdown on any number of my fellow voyagers as they navigate the rough seas of life.
I am no longer tempted to insert myself into the script and stick up for a recalcitrant spouse or rebellious offspring. Instead, I wish I could applaud or at least leave a tip for the pleasure and instruction received.