There is a whole industry that preys upon school districts, both public and private, by offering speakers to come give “important” talks to local school children and/or faculty and staff for a nice fee.
Once such group got money from the private Catholic middle school where I taught for a few years. Our administration hired someone to come talk to the faculty of the dangers of texting and walking. I am not kidding. They actually paid money for this.
During a campuswide faculty/staff meeting, an hour was set aside for this guest speaker. Back when smart phones first entered the scene, occasional videos would go viral of people so engrossed in their phones that they walked into fountains or dropped into holes in the ground. They were funny. We all laughed at them. But did we seriously need “an expert” to explain to us that this practice of staring at your phone while walking is dangerous??
And to make matters worse, the person who actually did the presentation, complete with powerpoint slides (to me, an immediate sign of an amateur) and said viral videos, was a terrible public speaker. What a waste.
However, fast forward ten or twelve years and now everyone has a smart phone in their hand. I don’t think we have seen a proliferation of people disappearing into holes, but people definitely have their heads in their phones or their air pods in their ears.
I live a block off of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. If you aren’t from Chicago, it’s also known as the Magnificent MIle, a main thoroughfare through the city, filled with storefronts, restaurants, and hotels. It is usually teeming with tourists.
As I walk down Michigan. I am always baffled at the number of people Facetiming friends as they walk, holding the phone in front of their faces as if they were talking to someone face-to-face. More than a few of these people have almost directly walked right into me. I’ve watched people texting with such intent that they honestly have no idea where they are. They wander into my path as I walk my dog, and I typically just stop, not sure where they are headed on the width of the sidewalk. When they get a few feet from me, their peripheral kicks in, they look up, jerk from shock that there is a person there, and then shuffle aside.
And I find that nearly every person walking alone has air pods in their ears. Some are talking on the phone, which is often disconcerting because as I stand next to them waiting for a light to change, they either shout something out (“No! I am not doing that!” or “What did she tell him??”) or they mumble incoherently in an effort to keep their public conversation private. If the air pods aren’t immediately apparent, thanks to hair, a hat, or my angle of vision, I usually at first think perhaps the mumblings are directed at me. Or that they are crazy. And believe me, out on the street here, crazy is a possibility.
In fact, yesterday I was on the Red Line train, a haven for people who have arguments with the voices in their heads, and a man was carrying on a conversation in the train car. I was slightly irritated. I didn’t want to hear it. I had assumed he was talking on the phone. But then I looked over, and he had no phone, no air pods, no companion. And then to confirm, he suddenly yelled out to the entire car, “Does anyone have 36 cents? I need to give it to the church.” That confirmed it.
When you are out and about, there are often things that warrant a reaction. Someone trips on an uneven sidewalk and falls. A car turns a bit too close to someone in the crosswalk, and the pedestrian punches the car. A horse with a policeman on its back rears up unexpectedly. A bridal party marches down the middle of Michigan Avenue. When I witness such things, I often turn to a person next to me and offer a smile or a look of surprise or a grimace. It is often subtle, and quite frankly, I wasn’t even aware I was doing this. But I have been made aware because of how many times the other person looks at me blankly, then takes out an air pod and says, “What?” They are not only completely oblivious to what I was trying to communicate, but they are completely oblivious to what has just happened.
Perhaps when this is most frustrating is when going through a doorway and the number of people who let the door slam me in the face behind them.
Don’t get me wrong. I long ago gave up any expectations that a man would hold open a door for me. After all, to do so would be sexist or misogynistic or anti-feminist or racist or some such thing. How dare a man imply that I, a strong independent woman, be incapable of opening my own door! (Is that how it goes?) So I understand that men are confused about whether or not it is polite and respectful to open a door for a woman (men, it is polite and respectful).
So I don’t expect a man to open a door. Except when it comes to my 23-year-old son. I expect him to open doors for his girlfriend and any other woman (James, if you are reading this, take note!).
One advantage of this “old-fashioned” gesture is that it requires people to have spatial awareness, a knowledge of who is around you. This is something so few seem to have, which is shocking considering how unsafe that is and how vulnerable that leaves people.
Truthfully, these days, my only expectation is that if someone goes through a door in front of me that they leave their hand on the door behind them long enough so that it remains partially open when I step up behind them. That sometimes involves a slight push to ensure I reach the opening before the door slams shut. I don’t think that is too much to ask. Is it? I am not even asking the person to slow their step as they march along. But alas, it appears even that is too much for some. I have had more than my fair share of doors slamming in my face. And I have had my fair share of incidents when I have yelled out sarcastically “Thank you” to the person rushing away after letting the door close on me. I typically get no response because of… you guessed it. The airpods!
But the other day provided the most revealing episode of this.
My apartment building has a lot of doors. There is the door from the outside leading into the vestibule. Then there’s the door leading into the lobby. Third is the secure door leading to the bank of elevators. And finally, there is the elevator door.
A young man, probably in his mid- to late-twenties, clean cut, professional, was a couple of feet in front of me as we approached the building while I was walking my dog. He walked into the vestibule, but he barely opened the door at all, slipping in so that although I was right behind him, the door closed in my face. He did the same for the lobby door. He slipped in like a fox in a chicken coop. By the time he got to the door to the elevator bank, I was standing right next to him. He opened it just enough to slip in and let it close quickly before I had a chance to catch it. Finally, at the elevator, he was standing alone in the middle of the car, facing the open door and watching as it closed on me. Luckily, I stuck my foot in before it closed all the way and climbed on.
Sure enough. He was wearing airpods. I think I may have said, sarcastically of course, “Thank you” at each door, and that would explain the lack of a response. So when I climbed into the elevator, I said, “Four times.” He cocked his head, confused. I held up four fingers and repeated, “Four times.” He took out one of his air pods and asked, “Huh?” as if he was completely startled that someone would actually be talking to him.
“You let four doors slam in my face. Do you pay any attention to what’s going on around you?” Yes, I realize that this sounds like someone’s mom. Or maybe an elementary school teacher. I couldn’t help it.
“Oh no. I don’t really pay attention,” he said, laughing nervously and making a move to return his airpod.
I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said next, something about how rude that was, and I am certain I repeated the number four.
As the doors opened for my floor, he shrugged his shoulders and said, and I quote, “It’s not my responsibility if I don’t see or hear you.”
My jaw dropped. My dog, well acquainted with when to get off the elevator, pulled on his leash. I stepped off. And the doors closed.
“It’s not my responsibility.” I am fully aware you have no responsibility to open the door for anyone. What an odd word to choose under the circumstances. What an odd statement to spontaneously come to the surface in those circumstances. What a defense mechanism: It’s not my responsibility! It’s not my responsibility!
I can’t help but think that he made a very profound statement. That’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? The perfect excuse for checking out.
See nothing. Hear nothing. And therefore, do nothing.
We have all heard the stories and seen the videos of horrific crimes committed against other people amidst crowds who simply stand by. Beatings, rape, assault. People look the other way or view the scene through the depersonalizing screen of their phone, like they are watching a movie. They turn up the music on their airpods so they don’t have to hear what is happening. They have convinced themselves that nothing is their responsibility.
I know, I know. It isn’t worth getting involved. If I intervene, I’ll get sued or arrested. I might get hurt. I get it. Some prudence needs to be taken into account. But this attitude that we need not take any consideration of other people around us is fatal.
And I sadly fear that if a young man (dare I even call him a man?) declares to the face of the woman to whom he was just so blatantly rude that he cannot, that he will not, take responsibility for his rudeness because of his obliviousness to the world around him that no one will ever be able to count on him. He can simply not see and not hear as he chooses.
I can imagine some might think I am reading too much into this, but I don’t think so. (Let me know if you disagree!) The man’s response to me was so reflexive, so much a part of his thinking. Usually people’s immediate response to such an incident is something like, “Sorry! I didn’t see you,” and they leave it at that.
This was something else entirely. And it’s worrisome.
Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino
Available on Amazon