#416: Selfies in the Great Hall

December 24th, 2014

The goddesses shade themselves under cloaks.

Gold-tinged women standing over the Great Hall, each with one arm pulling a waving cloak over her head to shade from the barrel-vaulted skylight above. Each goddess hoists a bird with her free arm. One, an owl to symbolize night. One, a rooster. For day.

The goddesses stand hiding from above, overlooking a massive marble room of Corinthian columns, Christmas decorations and people taking selfies.

Under seasonally colored banners hung like in a medieval hall, they snapped pictures. Beneath cloth-and-wire ornaments dangling over the Union Station staircase where Andy Garcia stopped the baby carriage in that movie, they lazily flipped through phones and tablets, texting and left-swiping as they walked.

The sounds of a train station crowd — footsteps on marble, updates on train departures, laughing voices blended by space and echo to a light hum and bustle — all punctuated by the “click-whir” of short audio files some phones play to pretend camera shutters are snapping.

A Christmas display filled the middle portion of the hall’s back. A smatter of different-sized trees decorated in lights, golden baubles and red plastic steam engines.

The largest towered over the room, drawing crowds for selfies. Young couples, families. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Broadly Midwestern white stereotypes in college football sweatshirts and Santa hats. Middle Eastern women in hijabs paused to take their own pictures among the Christmas cheer.

Children ran up to the tree. Couples sauntered and cooed at the romance.

And they all snapped, whirred, clicked their tablets and phones, frowning at the results of some of the photos and then, swipe of the finger, breaking into a glow at how the next one came out.

More machines. More cameras. More mobile devices with enabled wifi and data plans to make sure you are never separated from the ones you love, not even to interact with the ones you’re in the room with.

A female voice over the loudspeaker said “Test.” Christmas music started playing. James Brown.

There were a few scattered people-watchers among the crowd of swipers and texters. An elderly black lady in a rather large hat. A young Indian woman who kept her legs crossed and one hand on her jaw, occasionally smiling at nothing. A gape-mouthed white woman.

Some bobbed their heads around chicken-like to take in as much as possible. Some darted their eyes around. Some just stared forward. The few scattered among the swipers all wanted to swallow the scene, consigning the moment to neurons rather than pixels.

But each of the people-watchers, to a person, myself included, checked their phone. Took a picture. Sent a text. Not one of us didn’t.

An old loon buttonholed a man disassembling a bicycle to ask him how it was done. They talked for about 10 minutes, having a more human experience than my judgmental people-watching could ever allow.

But these were the exceptions. Mostly, the crowd used flat, square machines with rounded corners to announce to the Great Hall that they didn’t want to be there and announce to the Internet that they were.

Why would you choose to sing carols with random guy taking the Wolverine from Chicago to Detroit when Amtrak could pump in James Brown? Why would you talk to the person who happened to cop a squat on the pew next to you when pressing a button on a little gizmo in your pocket means hearing the voice of the person you love most in the world?

Why would you choose to interact with this flawed, compromised, uncontrollable world when there’s a better, safer, cleaner one in your pocket? One where you can just delete the image of you that didn’t turn out the way you wanted.

The goddesses of Union Station used their cloaks to shade themselves from the world. We’ve chosen a different way.

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