For Whom the Cell Tolls

July 12, 2008 at 6:42 am | Posted in Book Blather | Leave a comment

(October 1, 2007)

Something happened today that has probably driven me past the brink of sanity.  (Well, that shouldn’t take much!)

I was at the library, waiting at the designated table for my turn at an Internet computer, cleverly forgetting that this branch closes at 6 on Mondays.  Pretend this is a movie, and the camera will focus in on four things.  First, I turn off my cell phone before walking in the door.  Second, there is a sign on the door that reads, “While in the Library – as a courtesy to other Library Users, please TURN OFF CELL PHONES.”  (It even has a picture of a cell phone with a red circle and slash over it).  Third, as I approach the Internet table, I ask a little girl in one of the chairs if she is waiting to use the Internet.  She says no.  I carefully sit in “3 in line for Internet station” anyway.

Now the idiocy unfolds.

There was a woman at one of the computers.  I noticed her right away because she was morbidly obese, in the 500+ lb range, and I’ve been doing a lot of research on obesity in America lately.  I didn’t stare – I wouldn’t want anyone to stare at me! – but I did notice her when I sat down.  I looked up from my book when I saw that another woman, who had sat at the 1 spot at the table, got up and brought a cell phone to this woman.  She took the call and the second woman sat down again.  I rolled my eyes and went back to my book.

An elderly man sat down to my right, at the 4 spot.  We made eye contact and smiled.  Just then, out comes another cell phone from second woman’s purse, and she takes a call.  The man and I make eye contact again, and he shakes his head.  A minute goes by, and the call is still going on.  I decide to speak up.  I say, “Cell phones aren’t allowed here.  It would be nice if you took your call outside.”  The woman doesn’t look up and continues to talk.  The man joins in and says, “Yeah, you should take your call outside.”

The woman hangs up and says, “What?!  What did I do?”  At this point it’s all Dude’s argument.  He says, “You were on your cell phone – this is a cell free zone.”  Now the first woman, across the room at the computer, joins in.  She wants to know why we’re picking on her.  I reply and say there’s a sign on the door of the library that says to turn your cell phone off.  The second woman says, “You’re being rude.”  I point to the nearest computer station, where there is a 4″ square version of the sign on the front door.  (What can I say?  They’re everywhere; there must be at least a dozen on the walls and shelves).  The women continue to talk over each other, with raised voices, complaining that they weren’t doing anything wrong and to leave them alone.  Then the man says, “There’s a computer free, why don’t you go use the computer?”  The woman at seat 1 says, “I’m not waiting for a computer.”  The man throws up his arms at this, and points out that the table is marked with signs saying this table (one of, oh, eight) is reserved for the Internet waiting list.  She says, “What, I can’t sit here?”

At this point I left them to it, and got up to use the empty computer.  This was doubly frustrating, because the open station was right next to the first woman, who was by this time getting pretty belligerent.  (Where are the librarians, whose rules these are?  No idea).  I get up and sit down at the computer, where the woman to my immediate left continues to spout off for another ten minutes.  She comments that the elderly man “probably beats women.”  As she finally gets up, she says in my direction, “G*dd*mned noisy b*tch.”

(I am writing this from an Undisclosed Location which may be the answer to all my prayers.  If it doesn’t work out, I’m thinking it would save me $110 a year to cancel my cell phone and get Internet access at home instead).

So many things went wrong with the above scenario, it’s hard to know where to start.  I’m embarrassed at myself, first of all, because I should have remembered that it just does not pay to appear to criticize the extremely overweight.  They tend to bring out the tactical nukes about 30 seconds in.  I will admit that I am quite free about pointing out “no cell phones” signs to people, and I have gotten obnoxious teenagers evicted from the library a couple of times.  Usually when you point out to someone that they’re breaking a rule, they’re sheepish and apologetic, and they stop the behavior right away.  I’ve certainly made dumb mistakes and missed seeing obvious signs before, and while it’s embarrassing, who would take that kind of thing personally?  Would you not want someone to tell you if you were going into the wrong restroom?  But get past a certain self-esteem zone, and it’s just too painful to feel criticism “particularly from a friend, relative, acquaintance, or stranger” (as one of my favorite quotes says).

A more laid-back person reading this will no doubt be wondering, “What is your problem?”  (Or maybe, “What is your blood pressure?”)  My problem is, there seems to be no rule left in society that people don’t feel utterly free to break.  From spitting and urinating in public to running red lights to answering cell phones in the movie theatre to taking surreptitious nude photos of people in the locker room and posting them on the Internet… It’s impossible to go a single day in public without seeing some sign of egregious bad manners or outright law breaking.  I think there’s a spectrum of behavior that ranges from inspirational on the positive end, to acceptable, to rude, to dangerous, to criminal, to evil.  The more people whose everyday behavior crosses the line below acceptable, the shorter the distance to the lower ranges.  And suddenly, it’s uptight to follow rules and rude to try to convince others to.

There’s a fantastic book on this subject called Talk to the Hand, by the author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss.  It includes an anecdote about a British social worker who sees a mother breastfeeding a child who looks too old (around 5).  She asks if the child isn’t a bit old to be nursing, and the kid takes his mouth off the nipple and says, “*&@@ off.”

I was on the Muni on my last trip to San Francisco, on the Haight heading back to Market Street.  A man got on the bus who was too drunk to stand.  He collapsed onto a row of people in seats, then slid to the floor.  He had a handful of cash that spilled onto the seat and floor.  A couple of people handed him back his money and helped him into a seat.  A man sitting next to him looked around, snagged a dollar bill, then looked defiantly at everyone and shrugged.  Why not steal from a drunk?  Heck, why not follow him home and rob him?

This stuff shouldn’t have to be spelled out.  Stealing a dollar?  Personally I’d rather not even try to set a price on my integrity, but it would be more than one digit, I can say that!  Spitting seems pretty innocuous, but it can spread tuberculosis, among other respiratory diseases.  Urinating in a common area can spread cholera, again among other diseases.  Running a red light can Kill Somebody.  Talking on the phone during a movie, or at the library, helps to chip away at the few remaining silent and sacred spaces left to us in our overcrowded world.  It’s really no wonder why some poor souls snap and start loading the sniper rifles – this dumb ol’ world is asking an awful lot of the emotionally disturbed, not to mention the rest of us.  Respecting the boundaries of others is the very least we can do.


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