#886: Welcome to 2008

February 7th, 2018

The bar lets you bring in food from the greasy spoon next door, so I got a hamburger on a pita, which is apparently something that exists.

The place was designed for the young, the beer pong table and oversized Jenga tower attested, but at this early hour it was inhabited by the old. The guys at the bar talking wildly and broadly to pack in as much mock drunkness and youth as possible before their wives call them home for supper, old. The white-haired drinker at the end of the bar, silent but for the occasional gloomy sigh as he stared into nothing, real old.

And the bartender was old, thick Chicago accent that caused me to code switch into my own Chik-kahgo Guy ever so slightly as I ordered a beer to wash down my pita-meat.

I nestled by a window to watch snow glimmer over neon and sexless forms wrapped in scarf and hood hustle down the sidewalk. This was it. This was the place. This mixture of old men in a young bar, of desperation on a poor slip of a rich neighborhood, this sandwich ne’er before seen in my lifetime was a perfect, patented, ready-made 1,001 Chicago Afternoons story.

But first I just need to check something on my phone. 

After years of holding out, I finally caved to the world and got an iPhone. I was tired of group texts coming in jumbled and out of order on my little square gizmo where the keypad snapped out. There were other reasons — I get lost a lot — but the group texts were the big one.

Two separate friends quipped “Welcome to 2008″ when they found out.

I still don’t like it. I don’t like that coworkers who have had iPhones for years didn’t believe me about some of the stuff in the Apple terms of service (they sell your physical location in space), I don’t like how much I paid to fund violence in Africa through coltan mining, I don’t like how every conversation about privacy and the melding of corporations into the sphere of personal relationships ends up with two blinks from the other party and “You can turn off location services.”

And I hate that I cannot put this thing down. Even when trying to eat a burger-on-a-pita at a bar that screamed “story.”

I tried to daydream about the office workers hustling home past snowy windows and sent off a work email instead. I tried to linger over the taste and texture of a really difficult sandwich to eat and ended up checking Twitter. I texted my parents instead of talking to the white-haired old man and I wondered why friends kept telling me a machine that gives a constant stream of access to the president’s thoughts, words, actions and policies would ease my life.

I would put down the phone in disgust, vowing to envelop myself in the real world, then find it in my hand a few seconds later. I’ve checked it four or five times just since I started writing this story.

Beer and structurally problematic sandwich finished, I decided to take the long way to bowling league. The snow shimmied down the skies, glinting in streetlight like cracked glass. It was beautiful and broken, everything I love about a city.

The bus arrived when the app told me it would. I got on board and found a spot among men and women, boys and girls all hunched over checking their own devices. Bowling was typical. Attention and energy lags and by the third game it’s more a matter of keeping myself entertained while my team hunches over their phones, occasionally mentioning something new that popped up about the governor’s race.

My boss got a strike while playing HQ Trivia. Ball in his right hand, phone in his left. The pins erupted. This was the second time I’d seen him do that.

After bowling, I walked in the snow to the bus stop. An old man with a sturdy brown face and kind eyes poking between scarf and hood joined me. He pulled out his phone and I watched the snow.

I do know everything they saw in Chicago last night was quantifiably better than what I saw.

Their texts and bleeps and bloops were messages to dear loved ones, jokes with good friends. They were listening to the music of artists who inspired them. They educated themselves about gubernatorial races and felt the warmth of puppy photos when I was eating an ungainly sandwich and trying to psych myself up to talk to an old rummy. The life you choose on screen absolutely is better than the one splayed out before you with no rhyme, reason or search function.

But it’s my world of old rummies and weird sandwiches. It’s my world of watching pins topple and wondering what bus patrons are thinking. The kind-eyed man at the bus stop communicated with the loves of his life. I watched Ubers blacken and mush the snow on Western Avenue.

If I had been glued to my phone while I rode the bus home, I would have missed when a face-tatted white boy whose eyes said meth and pain smiled and stooped to pick up a piece of paper an old man dropped. He was the only one to help. I would have missed the teen boys’ laughter behind me, and would have missed each flake I saw glisten among neon.

I don’t want to lose this world but I keep picking up my phone to find a better one. I don’t like that at all.

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