Pretending Public Space Is Private (After Rebecca Solnit) Print E-mail

digital divide 3(Times of San Diego March 3, 2024)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how public spaces (trolleys, airports, music venues) no longer feel public, but temporarily accommodate people (us) who isolate and seem wholly removed from even looking at others—a club whose members are linked via their disconnection. Weird, I know. As if bus riders and plane passengers are hiding some secret (drug runners or deadbeat dads) or else feel guilty for a cultural misstep they’ll be canceled for.

Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay, “In the Shadow of Silicon Valley,” speaks to what has become all too common: “People on the street often seem to have their eyes elsewhere, usually on their phones: they might video a crime, but they might also not notice it’s happening. Many seem to flinch at direct contact with strangers or pretend the apparent intrusion didn’t happen.”

Solnit’s essay underscores how public spaces have been overtaken by phone users who reside in the tiny houses of the self and turn train or subway into menacingly silent retreats. Reading her affirms my unease, which came alive strikingly on a recent light-rail trip in Seattle.

From the airport to downtown, I notice a young Asian woman, college-age, headphone cords under ear mufflers, who is, I presume, listening to music and texting on her smartphone. An African-American man (his race matters as does the girl’s, which I’ll get to) climbs on board and sits across from her, knees in the aisle. From my vantage, he seems to be fixated on her. A yellow-jacketed ticket-checker comes by and the man, when asked for his card or receipt, says, loudly, “I don’t have to show you anything. I ride free.” Avoiding a showdown, the conductor issues a warning, saying, “You take it,” and the man carps back, “No, man, you take it.”

After stamping the rest of us paid, the ticketer gets off at the next stop and the man starts pacing puma-like, muttering to himself. I feel others recoil. I think, here is a public space being entered publicly and privately; the man and the girl, in my gaze, are perfect opposites: One flaunts the rules (payment, respect), the other obeys them and keeps to herself.

That is, until the man suddenly sits next to the girl. Staring from the side, I see him thrust his face close to hers; he says something, perhaps obscene; it’s assaultive because the girl, though still texting, starts shaking. She’s terrified. Just as quickly, a young Asian kid sitting before both of them turns and pushes the man aside who, jostled, gets up, paces again as if in strike mode (I note lots of us pull our bags close to our bodies and watch his herky-jerky moves). He declares, with the animosity of the defeated getting the last word in, “Just cause you Asian don’t mean you know her.” Another vindictive insult—he made it racial, not me—is why race matters in this telling.

And here’s the most curious part. Once the man is gone, the boy and the girl sit quietly, headphone cords dangling, I assume listening to tunes. The girl texts nonstop (Is she writing a term paper?) while the boy looks ahead—proud, a bit defiant, seated firmly by her side. (It was then I should have thanked him, given him a thumbs-up, but I didn’t.) I watch, feeling the liminal interval between public and private, both close and distant.

For the next ten minutes, the train rolls on, and the pair say nothing; neither acknowledges the other. I wonder if this is a ritual I don’t know about, another culture’s custom, a chivalrous expectation girls hold for boys, their gallantry uncommented-on. At the University of Washington stop, the boy nods to her and gets off while she, with a glance, whispers, “Thank you.” She gets off at the next stop. I sense the assault and rescue are still imprinted on her, though she masks it well.

What is this suffering in silence if that’s the right term? What kept the girl so quiet during the verbal attack and the boy’s defense? I think it was, in part, her living her hope for a private life in a public space as we all do; in part, her pretending that it wasn’t real, in the moment, and hadn’t happened after it had; and, in part, a way we conceal emotions as an emotion—the more intense the experience, the more personally burdensome it becomes. And yet her behavior belied that. Her fear was palpable because she may have figured that none of us riding with her would help; we other passengers were aloof, self-absorbed in our own anxiety and powerlessness.

Though her assaulter was five feet from me, I, too, froze. But then, I also felt some security with the boy’s bravery! How’s that for affirming human goodness. Is it too much to hope that the old culture of unheralded protection by a fellow traveler, ethnic or not, poleaxed the tech barrier? If such bravery were repeated every day, might it make public spaces public again, save them from being totally colonized by the phone’s imperialist reach?

What happens to the girl (so alone, so fragile) if there isn’t a Knight of the Realm to defend her honor and her person? And why didn’t I act, try and stop the man, at least, intercede, before her peer, the boy, did? What else did my journalist’s observational excuse bring to the incident but more of the same privatized disinterestedness I’m worried about?