Can't You See I'm Busy?
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Dec 2013)

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            My mother and I had just stepped onto the train platform when the blonde ponytailed, mid-20s-ish woman in front of us recognized and approached a bespectacled middle aged man who was sitting on the bench to our left, reading a newspaper. “Don’t I know you?” she asked him. He looked up, head tilted. She continued, “Haven’t I seen you in my restaurant?” “Ah. Yes,” the man replied. I am not convinced that he actually recognized her, but his politeness was admirable. For approximately one second. Then it became regrettable, because she took it as an invitation to continue. “It was crazy in there,” she announced, her volume increasing. “And it’s not worth it! Not for what they pay me!”

           My mother and I looked at each other with expressions that, if translated into punctuation, might read, “???”

           “That’s why I’m going into business for myself,” she said with finality. But it was not final. There was more. “Nobody likes their job,” she went on. “Nobody likes working for somebody else. Everyone says they’re unhappy in their current job.”

           “Most people,” the man interrupted, rising to stand, looking from left to right with just a hint of desperation. Had there been a door marked “Emergency Exit” 400 yards away on the train platform, I am certain he would have dropped the newspaper and made a break for it, dress shoes be damned.

           “Most people,” she corrected herself, taking another step towards him. “Most people are unhappy in their current job....”

           Fascinating though it was to observe all of this, I had to escape this assault to my ears and my mood. As my mother and I walked away, the woman’s loud, bitter, sustained verbal assault continued behind us. “Did he ask for any of that?” I wondered aloud. My mother shook her head and said, “I can just picture her chasing him down the aisle of the train to finish her story.” We agreed that he was unlikely to return to her restaurant.

           It would be easy to suggest that the 21st century tweeting/status updating/blogging phenomenon is partially responsible for this degree of social obliviousness. Perhaps some people have lost the ability to recognize the difference between sharing thoughts with strangers online and doing so in person. Online strangers can choose whether or not to pay person X any attention while, in real life, ignoring him or her becomes far more complicated. Yet, when people fail to grasp the idea that someone out there might wish to ignore them at all, well, we have a problem.

           But that is not a problem unique to the 21st century. Certain people have been this self absorbed for generations. The only difference is that, now, the audiences are larger, and the messages travel faster. The people are the same. All that matters to them is the opportunity to share, right now. Because he finds himself endlessly interesting. Because she knows that everyone is anxiously awaiting her next comment. Why wouldn’t the universe want to hear all about it? Now! Right now!

           I was on my way to visit a friend via a totally different train when a man sat next to me and tried to engage me in conversation. This despite the fact that I was quite visibly 1) wearing headphones and 2) knitting. Twice he interrupted me to ask a question. Twice I removed the headphones to say, “Excuse me?” before listening to him repeat the question, answering it, putting the headphones back on, and returning to my yarn and needles.

           After interruption number two, he was silent for about a minute, then picked up his phone to make a call. Ahhhh. Sweet relief. He would leave me alone! I had two activities, and now he had one. I relaxed and focused anew on the fabulous scarf I was making when, alas, far too soon, his call ended. When he hung up, he must have asked himself, “What could possibly be more interesting to this woman than speaking to ME? She can’t really care about whatever she’s listening to right now, because I can’t hear it, and that thing she keeps doing with that yarn and those sticks looks pretty dull to me. Let me rescue her from her obvious boredom.” Yes, he really did interrupt me and my activities a third time. He came to regret it.

           Only now does it occur to me to wonder whether that man is related to the angry waitress from the other train. Because, if not, who are these people? What do they have in common? Can someone please organize a study? The results can empower the rest of us to recognize them from afar so we can change seats before it is too late. Honestly, if open newspapers or headphones are not plain enough indicators that a person might just be occupied, avoidance is the next best approach. Otherwise, must I knit myself an actual “Do Not Disturb” headband to make it more evident? Wait, maybe I’m onto something. I bet I could start selling those at the train station. And, with the money I make, I can fund the study! Stay tuned.

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