There I was on the Metro to White Plains, New York, minding my own business, as I am wont to do, when I couldn’t help but notice a poster advertising “no-needle, no-scalpel, minimally invasive” vasectomies. My first reaction, naturally enough, was to shake my head over the hyphenated adjectives. Typical advertising copy, but at least it was grammatically correct. I checked it out when I got home (Chapter Six, Chicago Manual of Style).
Then I realized what they were advertising.
There is a photo in the poster of a father and two kids hanging out of a parked car, smiling as if they are on vacation and enjoying the good life. The father is in the backseat. The picture is taken by the mother. Of course, it could be another father, but then why would you need a vasectomy? Except that men are growing breasts and having babies now. It’s trending. But it’s probably the mother, maybe just not the father’s wife, marriage rhyming with vestige and appendage and not trending.
So, I sat there, thinking how utterly strange that poster would have been not so long ago. But there isn’t much privacy anymore, or, rather, privacy has a different meaning. It used to refer to things and actions that were restricted to the personal. Now, it is the right and even obligation to do the personal in public. Like the guy seated next to me, late-twenties, on his cell phone in a heated discussion with his mother over the Broadway show Cats. Mom liked it. He thought it was so 2000.
I don’t know where to look at times like these. I went from the floor to my hands folded on my lap to the poster again. When the guy complained how it was “just a show where adults stick cat tails on their behinds and slink around stage for two hours,” I had to smile. Couldn’t help myself. I imagined myself as the producer of the show and leaving my card with him.
I looked across the aisle. Another guy, could have been Catman’s brother, was texting so fast you’d think his thumbs were on fire. In front of him, a big black woman was rocking back and forth, plugged into a music video on her cell phone and humming out loud. In front of me, a Jamaican lady in a floppy hat and mirrored sunglasses was making arrangements to meet “Clyde” after Mass on Sunday. From the volume of her voice and the number of times she repeated the details, I figured Clyde was dead.
Here’s the problem: when you’re not plugged in and acting out (i.e., being private in public), then you are invading other people’s space. I was the only one not hooked into a device, so I was privy to everything around me, which made me feel like a voyeur. But an accidental one. It’s not that I don’t care about Cats or Clyde. If they were in my world, I probably would care. But they’re not, and so everything I learn about them is from a branch in the walnut tree overlooking my neighbor’s bedroom. I suppose that puts me out on a limb.
I am a voyeur for whom nothing makes sense. For instance, Black Friday is this week, unfortunately. Two years ago, I spent the day working on the third floor of Macy’s at Herald Square. When I tell people that, they shake their heads and ask what it was like. I reenact Charlton Heston’s line from Planet of the Apes: “It’s a madhouse!”
So, I spend a lot of time watching, not understanding, and then watching some more. Vasectomies on the train, public privacy, people plugged in and tuned out, a holiday that isn’t. I don’t get any of it.
I invited students who have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving to my place for what will amount to a day of under-cooked turkey and very dry martinis. I may serve cranberries. Most will be foreigners (the students, not the cranberries). And we’ll watch the parade from a distance.
We will be accidental voyeurs of America together.