The Past Is Calling

October 14, 2007

“Yep, sonny. This is sure enough Injun summer,” I almost said, sarcastically, to the young man walking with his girlfriend in front of me. It was one of those brilliant, illuminated fall days in Chicago, and I was walking my dog along my Lakeview street and recalling the goofy exaltation I used to feel as a kid reading the Tribune’s old politically incorrect cartoon, “Injun Summer.”

The trees, the breeze, the sun and the scents wafting through the air were broadcasting euphoria, but the couple ahead of me were having none of it. He had a cell phone welded to his ear, and she was staring at hers. They were not only ignoring the scene; they were ignoring each other.

“See off yonder?” I wanted to say to him, but didn’t for fear of making a public spectacle of my own cranky fiftysomething-ness. So I talked to him telepathically, from the depths of approaching geezerhood.

Long before you were born, my boy, a pedestrian who wanted to make a call went into a “telephone booth.” It was a tall box with a phone and a seat and a light and a door. Can you imagine? Back in that faraway time, phoning was so different from walking that it had to have its own room.

Nowadays, phoning runs and drives and skates. You and your friend carry phones in hand, as though on call for a terrorist emergency. You seem restless, eager to leap out of the here and now and be somewhere else, anywhere else. (“Where are you? At home? What are you watching?”)

But right here, right now, you are part of a small village of pedestrians.

Walking along a busy city street takes us out of ourselves a bit — brief eye contact here, friendly nods there, smiles, glances, even timid “hellos.” Strangers share reactions to street scenes and incidents and sounds and weather. Street faces bring a welcome break from the closed-off worlds of our cubicles and cars and computers.

What’s that you say (telepathically, of course)? That you’re just multitasking and I should, like, you know, chill? That’s true, I’m sure. Chilling is always good advice for a person of my age bracket.

And, as a tedious 20th Century unitasker, I really do envy your skill. The other day I saw a guy serenely dialing a phone while running on the street carrying a Chihuahua on his chest in a baby carrier. I was filled with awe. I’m just concerned about how cell phones have a way of pestering every situation, every place, every time, so that people tote the great indoors with them wherever they go.

Yep, sonny, there was a time when walkers just walked, and if you look real hard … wait, hold on. That’s my cell. Sorry, I have to take this call.

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