Friday, April 9, 2010


I was walking on the sidewalk in downtown Berkeley the other weekend, along Shattuck Avenue, and as I crossed an intersection saw that two bicyclists and a motorized wheelchair were approaching me. Two of the three wheeled vehicles were operated by people talking on cell phones. One of them was the woman in the wheelchair, the other was a sixteen-or-so-year-old kid on one of the bikes.

This is old news when the driver in question is behind the wheel of a car. There are laws and task forces, concerned citizens, National Highway Transportation Agency studies and scary articles in newspapers about that all the time. "Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content," but the facts seem to leave drivers cold if my experience is any measure. I get almost-hit at least once a week by some moron talking or texting instead of paying attention to where they're aiming their ton-o-steel.

Bicyclists on the sidewalk -- yeah, it happens, I've done it myself. Until some years ago such a violation of Safe Sidewalk Practice in my town could get you nailed for a $278 ticket, a misdemeanor. In 2006 the city bumped the violation down to an infraction, at a cost-to-perp of $75. The reasoning is explained at length in this edifying memo to our distinguished mayor & city council. Bicyclists talking on cell phones while they ride? California assemblyman Joe Simitian is shepherding a bill through the state legislature to require bicyclists to conform to "hands-free" practice just like cars -- the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week.

But I digress.

The point is that there's folks piloting wheeled vehicles on crowded sidewalks who think nothing of being distracted by their electronica while they endanger we poor pedestrians.

But the sad truth is, wheeled people aren't the only ones. Not all pedestrians are innocents.

More than once I've almost run down a pedestrian when legally and safely driving a car or riding a bike. I'm sure this happens elsewhere, but people in Berkeley seem to operate under some kind of moralistic fantasy that stepping into a crosswalk instantly activates an inviolable Greener-Than-Thou Zone of Safety around a pedestrian, even at night when said pedestrian is wearing dark clothing. This belief is held so strongly that there's no reason, apparently, in the minds of these smug bipeds, to stop talking on a Crackberry for long enough to pay attention to onrushing traffic.

For example: a tale in which cultures collide, almost.

A cousin's daughter is a sophomore at Cal. Early in her first year at our fair university, my cousin was driving his daughter, me, and my partner south along that selfsame Shattuck Avenue. He was driving fast. I figured he was driving fast (and ignoring my backseat begging that he please slow down) because he lives in Orange County. In OC, any road that's not fully ensconced inside a walled tract of residential homes qualifies as a junior freeway. People drive 45 miles an hour on those junior freeways, and that's when they're feeling pokey. They expect pedestrians -- pedestrians? are there pedestrians in Orange County? -- to stay the hell out of the way.

So my cousin presumably didn't have a lot of experience with what it might mean that the car in the right lane had stopped in front of a crosswalk. There was no stop sign. There was no stoplight. Therefore, what reason could there be to stop?

Fortunately, he's got quick reflexes. He didn't kill the young woman, about his daughter's age, walking obliviously (if legally, within the crosswalk's bounds) across the four-lane road. Naturally, she was -- wait for it -- talking on her cell phone.

But again I'm taking a long time to make a simple point: you don't have to be riding or driving anything to be guilty of public obliviousness.

Now you're thinking: Okay, Steve. This is your cell phone thing, isn't it? It is true that I confessed in my recent "Silly Surveys" post that I qualify as a cell phone refusenik. One of the few, one of the proud, a Luddite with a job in information technology. But, no. This is not just my cell phone thing. You can tell because I'm about to tell a story from another point of view...

On the way home from San Francisco on the BART the other day -- BART is the Bay Area's commuter train system -- a woman with a Caribbean accent was jabbering loudly across the aisle into her iRazr (or whatever it was) about some port on some small island, where four ships had docked that weekend. Apparently somebody she knew, and the person on the other end of the call knew, works in some obscure part of the unnamed island's tourist-handling infrastructure. Maybe she's a maid, or a taxi driver, or the person who puts little paper umbrellas in drinks made from rum and fruit juice. Well. Four ships. One weekend. That's a lot of tourists to handle, or at least that's the gist of what this woman across the aisle felt compelled to say over and over and over and again about this scintillating topic.

Those of us held captive to this conversation in the BART car didn't get a lot more detail than that. Four ships is a lot of tourists to handle. You know? Can you imagine it? So many! Four ships!

Meanwhile, the woman in the seat ahead of me was reading a copy of The New Yorker. I was reading a copy of The New Yorker too, probably an earlier issue because I'm invariably behind. As it happens, I was reading an article by Malcom Gladwell that I blogged about soon afterward. But that's neither here nor there, and I wasn't feeling nearly as aggravated as the woman in front of me about being unable to concentrate over the relentless babble about four ships, some small island, that's a lot of tourists to handle. Four ships!

Eventually the woman in the seat ahead of me turned and snapped at the woman with the Caribbean accent, "Could you please just tone it down a little?!" The woman across the aisle pretended she didn't hear, but soon got off the phone. Then she stared ahead silently, hugely aggrieved. The woman ahead of me went back to her magazine. I got off the train at the next stop.

My point here?

It's not just people on wheeled vehicles who are checked out from their environment. It's not just pedestrians either. And it's not just people talking on cell phones. It's people reading magazines, on metro systems and in other public spaces.

Yeah, sure, we who read The New Yorker on public transit can pat ourselves on the back because we're reading a fancypants high class magazine, not talking on cellphones about dealing with four ships docking in a Caribbean port and disgorging a lot of tourists. But so what? On the evening in question, I was just as checked out from the BART train as that kid on the bike was checked out from that sidewalk full of pedestrians, who happened to include yours truly. And that woman ahead of me? She was checked out too, and indignant as hell that the cell-phone babbler had a different mode than hers of managing to be both on and off the train. And had there been someone in our car reading People, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or a Louis L'Amour western, or listening to Bjork MP3s -- same difference.

Now this could all end up as the insufferably long back story for some sniveling morality tale -- of the 'Well, at least I wasn't going to run anybody over sitting on my arse in the third car on BART' variety -- but that would be ... uninteresting.

What I really want to say is: Michael Stipe. Or, more exactly, R.E.M.

See, it's a short leap from being both on & off the train to being on or off the bus, and that leads more or less directly to Michael Stipe singing "Stand" ... from the album Green, remember?

Now I know as well as you do that Michael Stipe is on record, on MTV no less, disavowing all meaning in that song, claiming "Stand" is made up of "the most inane lyrics I could possibly write." (You knew that, right?) So call me a fool. I thought when this single played on the radio at the tail end of the 80s that those lyrics were profound.

I still think so, which may, you're thinking, mean that I'm soft in the head, just another unbathed, Buddha-worshiping vegan growing dope in my redwood-shingled greenhouse here on the left coast.

Well, you're wrong. On every single count, except maybe soft in the head.

My point is: what ever happened to being where you are?

Yeah, sure there are times and places where there's really not a lot of incentive to check in. Maybe one of those places is the third car back from the front of a BART train, at night when you can't see anything out the window even when the train's running above-ground. Maybe another is waiting for your dryers to finish at the laundromat. Etc. But none of that is my point. My point is that you walk down the street these days and sooooooooooooooo many people are standing or walking or driving or drooling in a place where they're not, because where they are is tethered to a cell phone, or immersed in whatever music is enclosing them in their own private sound track, or lost in a hand held video game, or fingering their iPud. Pad. Whatever.

You've got to wonder. What's so much more interesting about a cell phone conversation -- "I'm in front of the Snacky Cake Shack, where are you? In front of the Cheesy Poof Palace? I don't see you. Wave, dude. No, I still don't see you..." -- that justifies tuning out the environment you're actually navigating, the people actually surrounding you, the stuff that's actually happening off-screen, where you actually are?

I mean, if you like the world, be in it! If you hate the world, change it! If you and your friend out front of the Cheesy Poof Palace can't find each other when you're thirty yards apart, get a new friend! Or a life! Mein gott, people...

Sorry. Maybe that is the refusenik talking. And Buddha knows I read books and magazines, or scribble, often enough in public spaces. It's not like I've got moral high ground to stand on.

But there's something worrying about how very very far the world has drifted since Michael Stipe sang his cautionary lyrics, let alone since the Merry Pranksters did their Furthur thing. (Don't believe that Stipe interview on MTV, by the way. Those lyrics are certainly not nonsensical. He's playing a classic troubador trick -- cf. Bob Dylan, right?)

Go on, turn it off.

Close the Razr, shut the book, blend the iPad, roll up the magazine and stick it in your way-too-cool Timbuk2 messenger bag.

Take a look around.

You have nothing to lose but your leash.


  1. Yes, it's all about absence. Talk about your out-of-body experiences--many of us have become over-caffeinated simulated multi-taskers, staring at our i-stuff, unable to focus, slamming into strangers. You put me in mind of a passage from Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities" (and this from the first half of the 20th Century): "There has arisen a world of qualities without a man to them, of experiences without anyone to experience them, and it almost looks as though under ideal conditions man would no longer experience anything at all..."

  2. You've also carried me back to Robert Hass's great ode to absence, "Meditation at Lagunitas":
    "All the new thinking is about loss.
    In this it resembles all the old thinking."

  3. Oh, I enthusiastically second your vote for consciousness.

    However, I like nothing better than “spacing out” while reading a book on the very same BART you mention. My earplugs are pushed in tight, muting the voice of the rider in the next row, who needs to tell his “best friend” (actually the unsuspecting new stranger just settling in the seat at his side), and everyone in the entire car for good measure, each and every detail of his miserable life to date. Plus, of course, several cell phone conversations at full decibel nearby. Wait, my protection is not complete, I put on my dark glasses to block the sights (often too bizarre to politely mention). Mindfullness means being prepared.

    It’s said that too much loud nose and confusion causes the body to go into fits. Are we surprised that most of us retreat into “temporary worlds of our own making”. Like creatures over the millenniums, we are adapting.

    As for those folks who move about on foot, by bicycle, wheelchair, or car, who talk incessantly on their cell phones to the exclusion of the “here and now world” around them - did we ever think they may be lonesome? Think about how it used to be when you went for a walk, a bicycle ride, etc., before cell phones appeared on the scene. You had two activities to occupy your mind - your own thoughts, plans, worries, and/or your observations of the world around you. Now, that doesn’t seem to be “personal” enough. We need a friend on the other end of the line to do it for us.

  4. I second ALG on consciousness (956 days and counting) tempered by self-defense.

    Semi-tangentially, I came across a music video this morning that essentially suggests the same thing as you have here, to a dramatically different audience. (Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles".) What I find particularly interesting is the anti-intellectual framing of the idea, and the dichotomy they set up between science and wonder. Regrettably, they're not alone in positing this (I would argue) false dichotomy; I've heard similar things (both explicitly and implicitly) from the intellectual elite.