I live in Sherman Oaks, California, and I walk all the time in Sherman Oaks, California. Not all the time in the sense of never sitting down and not sleeping, and only eating food handed to me by my wife as I walk past her, like Sisyphus without the rock and mountain, but often; I walk often.
And I don’t mean the kind of walking that would have an iPod strapped to my arm and a water bottle swinging from my belt either—arms pumping to whatever is making noise in my white ear buds. Some motivational guru. “Walk, walk, walk. Step, step, step. Happy, happy, happy. You’re a successful person; yes, you are. Walk, walk, walk. Step, step, step. Smile.”
No, I mean walking to mail a letter or to buy groceries or to get something to eat, and that kind of walking puts me outside in a way that isn’t the way of most people outside walking. Because most people outside walking are power walking or walking to or from their cars (The United States of Car), and I’m not. I am an Ambulator and an Observer, and there are observations that puzzle me.
I observe people walking while talking on cell phones. I observe people looking down at cell phones, reading and writing text messages while walking; and these are people who I believe are walking to and from their cars, who are not walking in the same way that I am walking. But that’s not all. There is something going on with these walkers and their cell phones, something attitudinal and, yes, very puzzling, not to mention disturbing. And I will attempt to discern what that something is. I will present empirical data, collected over the last few days, observations of cell-phone usage by pedestrians who are not like me. And from that data I will attempt to derive a theory, A Theory of What’s Going On.
Today I saw a young woman with a baby cross a major boulevard in the San Fernando Valley while talking on her cell phone. This intersection has an average of two accidents per day, a statistical fact. She was pushing a baby stroller across a dangerous intersection while talking on her cell phone; her head was down; she was concentrating on her cell-phone conversation. She was not looking at the traffic surrounding her and her baby: the traffic moving with her across the intersection, the traffic that had stopped at the crosswalk.
We continue. Yesterday I saw a young man, smartly dressed, brown plaid fedora, walking down my street in Sherman Oaks. He was walking in the street reading text messages on his cell. Paying no attention to oncoming cars. I did not observe him look up once, at oncoming traffic.
And finally we’ll have to forget my rigorous objective approach, because the next piece of evidence involves me. A few days ago I was walking down a major boulevard near my home, on the sidewalk of course. There’s a rather small young woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk talking on her cell phone. The sidewalk is narrow where Tiny Talker is standing because there’s an al fresco situation there— tables on the sidewalk and not much room between those tables and the curb. The young woman is standing in the middle of that narrow space talking on her cell phone, blocking the sidewalk. She sees me, but she does not move. And I’m an old guy with white hair sticking out from under a baseball cap, and I’m breathing hard because it’s very hot in the San FernandoValley these days, so hot that I shouldn’t have been walking. The young woman does not give way to my advanced age or my obviously distressed condition because she is talking on her cell phone, and that’s the most important thing that could be happening in the whole world. So I had to walk in the gutter to move past her. I said something to her, but of course she did not hear me. And what I said wasn’t about the al fresco cuisine nearby. In fact, what I said rhymed with, “Are you blind? It’s one-hundred ten degrees, and I’m old. Couldn’t you move, you midget cretin?”
All right, so I lost some scientific detachment with the last observation because of the dog feces in the gutter; but I will now regroup and attempt to construct a theory.
It is my preliminary conclusion that these pedestrians on cell phones—reading, writing and talking—are not of this world. The world of cars, of five-thousand pounds of sharp metal, the world of embodied other people. When they are using their cell phones, they don’t care about their babies or old people or flying bloodied through the air and landing on the roof of a fast-food restaurant. They care about…what the hell do they care about? Something extra-terrestrial? Another world or a universe that is on the other side of their electronic connection? To whom or what are they talking? Their operators on another plane, planet? Is our world (accelerating heavy metal objects, babies, old people) all Maya to them—you know, the Hindu concept of “the illusory appearance of the sensible world.” Is that it? Do they think, in other words, that the world that surrounds them is not real ?
No, that’s not it. Tiny Talker doesn’t know from Maya. Fedora and Stroller Mom don’t either. I don’t understand. Forget my attempting A Theory of What’s Going On. I just don't understand.
Last week when it was really hot in the San Fernando Valley I walked (like a fool) to my little restaurant, the restaurant where one of the waitresses always laughs at my jokes and pays little attention to my rants. Did I mention that it was hot? And when I finally reached the restaurant and walked to my seat at the counter, I said to the waitress who always laughs at my jokes, "I'm in a hurry; my camel is double-parked."
And of course she laughed.
mondegreen: (n.) a misheard lyric, from the name Lady Mondegreen. Coined by S. Wright in Harper's Magazine, November 1954. "When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, and Lady Mondegreen." [A mishearing of "laid him on the green."] From the Oxford English Dictionary Online.