Lives turned inside out
“And there I was, standing in the street with tears running down my cheeks.”My cousin, visiting from Switzerland, was describing how her day of shopping in New York City had been interrupted by a phone call from her very young daughter back home, who whispered a tear-filled “I love you, Mommy! I miss you!” and filled her ear with trans-Atlantic kisses.It was, in fact, the third or fourth such call of the day, as daughter, using her nanny’s cell phone, had called from various spots around Geneva, catching mother as she walked around New York.It was that last call, with whispers and kisses, that had hit the proper emotional buttons and reduced my cousin to very public tears.Her story reminded me of the first time I had seen someone in public tears on a cell phone. It was also in New York, six or seven years ago; the person was a stranger, and the tears were very bitter. I was walking briskly downtown on Fifth Avenue, when something about the woman walking ahead of me caught my attention.I’m not sure quite what it was, perhaps the way her head was bobbing as if in an animated conversation, though she was walking alone. I slowed as I passed her and realized that she was talking on a cell phone – not nearly so common then as it is now.The woman was shouting into the phone, screaming really. “No! No! You can’t do this to me! You can’t!” Her voice cracked, there were tears streaming down her face. She seemed oblivious to the fact that hundreds of people were streaming past as she had this terrible conversation.I hurried by, struck by the strangeness of the moment. Cell phones were just coming into vogue then, and I had mostly been conscious of the way some people seemed to flaunt them for effect and some others used them rudely – either consciously or unconsciously – to inflict their personal conversations on anyone in the vicinity.But this was a strange twist. This woman was, in a sense, being rude to herself. She was laying bare her deeply personal emotions in a very public, very careless way. Since she was walking and all the rest of us were walking – some quickly, some slowly, some uptown, some downtown – no one would catch more than a brief glimpse into the depths of her despair. And yet, still, she was spilling her secret life out on a New York sidewalk – experiencing a deeply personal moment in a very public way.Then, just about two years ago, I was the one having deeply personal moments on a cell phone.My mother was dying. I was in Aspen. She was in New York. I was flying back East the next day to see her, certainly for the last time, but I had a sudden urge to talk to her. I went out the back door of the newspaper building to get away from everyone in the office and called her on my cell phone.She was weak, so we spoke for just a few moments. It was a very emotional, very important, very private conversation. We said good-bye. I pushed the “end” button and looked around. There was no one there, but I realized I had held this conversation standing next to a Dumpster, surrounded by alleyway litter and trash. It felt terribly wrong, but it was also forever engraved in my memory.The next day, I flew to New York. When I got off the plane, I checked my cell phone and saw there was a message. I listened while I waited for my baggage in the dimly lit, cavernous depths of the terminal. People were rushing by. The baggage conveyor was squealing and shrieking, metal on metal, as I listened to the recorded voice of my sister telling me that our mother had died while my plane was in the air.It wasn’t really a conversation. I had nothing to say, I just listened. But it was a very private moment in a very public place. My life turned inside out – literally – by the modern miracle of a cell phone.What have we gained? What have we lost?Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.