The man talking to himself at the table in Starbucks had a huge spray of gray ratty hair, a pile of crumpled papers and books and, one leg of his sweatpants rolled up in a comical imitation of ’90s gangster style. He wore a large, shabby cable-knit sweater. His long, matted grey hair that sort of formed a beaver tail dreadlock like a wall on one side, the rest spraying all over the place.
Although his face was relaxed, the patterning of his leathery wrinkles indicated that he’d seen something horrible and radioactive. Like someone who’d seen the ark of the covenant opened on the surface of the sun. He muttered loudly, saying “Well, if the light barrier can be crossed, there’s no telling what could happen — we could completely collapse the wall between the present and the future.”
He smelled okay, though, near as I could tell.
It was about 9 am so the shop was packed, full of effervescent teens and gawping tourists and jittery suits like me. We all stood in a pattern like an oxbow stream, bending wide around the muttering man. nobody looked at him for real except me, maybe. New Yorkers get this thing where the surface of their skin works like a low-functioning eye, enabling them to detect and carefully turn their backs on potential unpleasantness without ever directly addressing it.
The line looked like this:
Then the man shifted in his seat a little and tossed his mighty beavertail dreadlock over to one side, revealing a bluetooth earpiece blinking away in his ear. He’d been having a conversation with someone about the fabric of space-time. I got a better look at the books and papers spread over the table. They were covered with complicated diagrams and equations and very, very tiny print. Maybe advanced physics texts, from the look of it.
Suddenly he wasn’t a hallucinating lunatic anymore at all — he was a lovably eccentric physics professor, a charming mad scientist who lived close to the edge of something very few of us could ever understand.
Without really noticing, I drifted from my position at the apex of the line’s oxbow closer to the man’s table. All of a sudden, it felt fine. I’m not sure if the rest of the people in line saw the mad professor’s bluetooth device through the skin on the backs of their necks or just detected that a member of the herd got close to an undesirable without consequences. But when I looked back at the line behind me, it looked like this:
Bluetooth devices have turned us into a nation of hallucinating lunatics, really. I can’t tell you HOW many times I’ve thought someone was either talking to me or just having an episode, only to see something blinking behind their hair. And it stuns me a little to think how much credit we give someone for their behavior just because they’re interacting with a piece of technology. That guy went from wino to eccentric genius with one flip of his beavertail dreadlock. The collective consciousness is a beautiful, powerful and flawed thing: with that one piece of information, that one blinking device all of us in line said without speaking: “Oh, cool — now he conforms to a more desirable archetype. Let’s stop shunning him.”
We transmit ideas, stories, characters and narratives through the way we dress, the angle we hold our heads and the skin that peeks out from under our costumes. And as social creatures, we need to constantly communicate just to ensure the survival of our species. But boy do we ever screw it up sometimes.