Monday, February 14, 2011

FTT Off-Topic: We're Not Here

For 4.5 years now, I've done the Big Commute to midtown Manhattan from central New Jersey. That's roughly 1000 minutes a week, 4000 minutes a month, 11,000 a year (vacations etc.), for a ballpark estimate of about 825 hours spent shuffling along on New Jersey Transit, PATH and the MTA. And in all that time, I haven't really seen anything terribly untoward from the passengers. (Knock wood.)

Peak hour commuters are a beaten-down, unexcitable lot; the majority of these trips and time have been spent in monk-like silence, and there are weeks that go by without me saying a word in transit. As I get older and fail to adjust, they often include a nap. There are worse things, and my NYC salary, even with the ludicrous jump in train fare last year, spends ok in the deep burbs.

Anyway, that's not what this is about.

When this started, I'd see people with IPods, and after a couple of years, that became me as well. You'd also see folks with laptops open on the longer train rides. Both are still true. But what's really happening now is the third screen; the smart phone, the tablet.

Even the people who are reading books pull them out now, the thumbs moving in their detached way to text or scroll or play, and the big point that I want to make about all of this is that these people (and yes, that includes me when I'm attached to something, be it a writing thread or email chain)... is that they aren't really there.

So they don't get really angry about delays, or sardine conditions, or, well, much of anything. Maybe if you killed the Wifi, or if it's really cold or hot, but otherwise we are livestock in a pen, and about as prone to freaking out as that.

Which is why any moment out of the ordinary jumps out.

Last Friday night, on my end of the week and falling asleep on my feet commute, I'm waiting in my usual spot for the 6:22. And out of the corner of my eye and hearing, these two Asian guys start getting into each other. One curses the other, and the other gives him a hard look back. The worst question in English ("You Wanna Go?") follows, and suddenly it's a middleweight sparring contest, with jabs and hooks missing... and truth be told, both men looked really silly, because if you don't know how to box and try to, it's spazzy middle schoolers all over again.

After a flurry of misses, the crowd ambled into the middle of things and shooed the combatants away. If either guy had seemed good at it or threatening, I don't know if people would have been so moved, but so be it.

The reason why it lasted even as long as it did - and honestly, it might have only been 15 seconds, but that's an eternity when it's taking up your full attention on a crowded platform - was that all of us were wrapped up in our little screens. Just as I am, writing this, right now.

And it makes me think that it's a good time to be a pickpocket, except for the fact that so many of these things have... cameras. Which is what was asked for, when I posted this little sliver of news to my Facebook account.

The tech, it changes things. Probably forever, and probably for the best; an anesthetized train rider is less likely to ruin your day. But still, good to note the change, and see where it might lead. (I'm really hoping that it won't translate to people who are driving. But it probably will.)

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