No one is ‘there’ anymore

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Have you ever noticed how people these days seemed to be ‘tuned out’ most of the time? You get on the subway and everyone has their faces buried in their phones or tablets. Even when you go to meetings, I’ll lay you odds that one or two people present, if the attendance is more than five or six, will spend a good bit of their time checking their phones. Even at meal time, the time when families spent time ‘with’ each other—at least, that’s what they did when I was a kid—people have their phones at hand and more times than I care to count I’ve observed groups eating together in restaurants and the entire table is ‘on the phone,’ sometimes not even looking at the food they’re shoveling into their mouths.

During a recent trip to Florida, I was sitting in the airport waiting for my flight, in a crowded waiting room, and the only person paying attention to others besides me was a curious kid who looked to be about four or five. Everyone else was texting, talking to their phones (using those annoying bluetooth ear buds), watching a movie, or surfing the Internet. I found myself looking forward to the periodic announcements on the airport’s PA system just so I would know I was not alone in the place. I was tempted to try to strike up a conversation with the kid, but he was way across the room and enthralled with a plastic potted plant. Not, mind you, that his mother—I assume the woman sitting near him was his mother-would have complained, because she had her nose buried in her tablet. I mean, someone could have walked by and snatched the kid up and if the poor child didn’t scream, she probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Recently, someone told me about a bunch of kids in a public place making noise and generally being annoying. They were not out alone. Their parents were sitting in the same room but too busy checking their phones to notice and curb their kids’ enthusiasm. The few people who were not on the phone, and they were, I’m told, very  few, suffered in silence.

Have you ever tried to strike up a conversation with one of these zombies? It’s freaky. Usually, unless you tap them on the shoulder, they don’t respond because the one’s talking in their universe are usually talking to their phones with the bluetooth, hands-free devices, so they ignore everything but Alexa. Tapping their shoulders can be as risky as touching a sleeping snorer. I once tapped a young lady on the shoulder to ask her to stop blocking the door as she checked her email and she jumped nearly two feet in the air. I would’ve felt guilty if she’d hurt herself, but she really should have noticed that she had planted herself in a position that effectively blocked the door to everyone else.

On another occasion I was walking from George Washington University to the Department of State and I came to a lighted crossing. The light for pedestrians was green and the cross-traffic light was red, so I stepped into the crosswalk. Fortunately I was always taught to look both ways regardless of the lights, and I saw a car heading for the crosswalk that didn’t appear to be preparing to stop. In fact, it didn’t stop. The woman driving it blew right through that crosswalk, ran the red light and almost got T-boned by a Metro bus coming up the street. She didn’t slow down or react to my shout or the blaring of horns. You want to know why? I got a good close look when she blew past me. She had one hand on the steering wheel and a phone in the other and was pecking away with her thumb, so her eyes and attention were on the phone not the road.

She and I were both lucky that day, me because I was paying attention, and her because the bus driver was paying attention. She was clearly not ‘there,’ at that moment, and came very close to not being here as in living and breathing on earth.

Come back, please, all of you. Rejoin us and be here with us. We miss you. – NWI