Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Life in a City

I don't normally go out to breakfast, but today I had to do one of those fasting blood tests.  Since it was also the day the house cleaners were coming, I went out to breakfast after my little stint in the lab.  I chose a little cafe in the hospital neighborhood, which does basic breakfast and lunch, and sat down at half of a table for 4 in the back.  The joint was jumping; when I walked in that was the only empty table, and as I ate, the tables stayed full.

So I wasn't surprised to be joined.  But the whole incident was odd. A stocky middle-aged Asian woman stood next to my table for several minutes, then finally sat down.  She was talking under her breath almost continually.  She never spoke to me or made eye contact, and never asked if I minded sharing the table.  I didn't mind. I did sort of expect to be asked, but not enough to make a fuss over it. 

The whole time she sat at the table, she continued her sotto voce conversation - she was looking across the table as if there were someone there.  I couldn't hear what she was saying except for an occasional word - and the word I caught was "crazy".  I still wonder what was going on.

This is why I like living in cities.  If that had been in a small town, I'd probably have known everyone in the place and all their business.  In the city, you're never quite sure what's going on.


  1. Since we both grew up in a relatively small town, I think I know what you're getting at. In a small town, it's much more likely that if you go out, or are walking on the street, you'll see someone you know.

    Lately, I've been going over my past. With Google-maps, you can browse almost any street in America--and other parts of the world as well. I can literally walk down the streets of my childhood and young adulthood, confirming addresses, and seeing how change has transformed the world I once knew.

    I was a paperboy for four years as a boy, and there were over a hundred customers on my route. I got to know every one of them. It was like an expanded family of people in the neighborhood, whose lives and destinies I followed. Then there were the people I knew in school. Some of the parents knew my parents, and that too was a kind of intimate extended family, of sorts.

    In the world I live in now, this seems very unlikely. We don't even know our neighbors, and most of them seem to feel this is just fine, thank-you very much.

    Have we lost something? Are we, as a people, becoming increasingly insular and isolated, despite all these communication devices. There are many people who believe that we are.

    Or perhaps I'm just being nostalgic about growing up in a small town full of immigrants (from the Midwest, the South, and points in the Pacific) in the 1950's and 1960's.

    Has it really been half a century since then?

    What an astonishing development!

  2. I was at a restaurant having breakfast with my mom after one of her appointments a few years ago when I noticed a woman sitting alone at a table having an animated and intense conversation with herself. Only when she got up to leave did I notice the earpiece phone she was wearing.

  3. Curtis, it really is a different world, but it isn't that different. When I was a child, we knew the people in a couple of houses on either side of us, and that was it. Right now I'm on at least casual chatting terms with everyone on my (much smaller) block. (I'd have said "almost everyone," but the unsociable guy in the corner house has moved out.) I think what we've really lost is the time to socialize, and that's mainly because women now work. When we were growing up, most mothers stayed home; they knew the neighbors because they were all home all day, and the kids went to the same school.

    Yeah, it's been fifty years. Scary, isn't it?

    D.B., I didn't see an earpiece, but as I think back, I'm not sure I ever saw her left ear, so your diagnosis could be right! But even if she was on the phone, her facial expression and gestures suggested she was looking at a person she was addressing.