Friday, March 1, 2013

The New Hysteria

It used to be that going for a walk or spending a couple of hours at Starbucks was a routine undertaking. No more! The best way I know to describe it is to say that there just seem to be a lot more people -- everywhere. It's like the worst-case scenario of how overpopulation might someday force us to live.

Take yesterday, for instance: an ordinary, damp Thursday, the last day of February. I wrapped myself up in coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, and for a change of pace, took a ramble through the neighborhood instead of the park. Since it was mid-afternoon, gray and chilly, I figured I'd have the streets to myself. It's a pleasant neighborhood for walking, bounded on one side by a wooded area and filled with an eclectic group of mid-century homes. There's generally not a lot of traffic, just birds, stately trees, and quiet houses.

But what had gotten into everybody yesterday? As I cut through the hospital's back parking lot and headed up the first hill, there was a whole procession of cars climbing the rise with me. As I turned left onto the next street and descended a gentle knoll, I continued to see traffic, and it only increased the farther I went. I had to look at my watch a couple of times, wondering if I had mistaken the time. Normally, traffic picks up on these back streets at 4:30 or so, and it was well before then. I couldn't imagine what so many people were doing in such a quiet residential area in the middle of the day. It was like a full-fledged passeggiata, but with cars instead of people.

I can't count the number of times I've been walking in the Arboretum lately and had to stop and wait for someone carrying on a loud conversation to go on past. One of the pleasures of walking in the park is to enjoy the birds singing, listen to the wind in the trees, and hear yourself think -- or so it used to be. It wouldn't be so bad if people didn't seem so aggressively determined to share what they have to say. I was recently on the path behind the garden, strolling toward the bridge over the hollow place, when I heard a young woman coming up behind me yelling breathlessly into her phone, "And then, I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO DO!" I had to step off the path, contemplate the trees, and count to thirty until she was out of sight. Another day, I had to sit on a bench and pretend to be tying my shoe while another woman, who seemed determined not to pass me no matter how slowly I walked, carried on an energetic conversation about blood thinners. I sat and soaked up the sun until she disappeared.

Then there's the local Starbucks. I've spent many hours there, studying, reading, or writing, and it used to be that you expected it to be busy only on Saturdays and Sundays. The crowd is usually a combination of regulars, students, and people from the neighborhood, which is a fairly mixed demographic. Lately, however, it has taken on more the frenzied atmosphere of a cocktail party at full tilt rather than the cafe feeling of days past, complete with ear-splitting conversation, immoderate laughter, and people who seem desperate to engage your attention. You almost have the impression that Andy Warhol is going to show up any minute. Or Truman Capote. Someone like that.

I'm not dogging myself. For a middle-aged girl, I've held up pretty well. But when I tussle my MacBook, power cord, and iced coffee into the only available seat to find myself nose to nose with a stranger looking like a slightly creepy version of Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, who apparently has nothing to do but send come-hither signals . . . well, I just start to wonder, that's all. You just don't meet Mr. Rochester in Starbucks (or in elevators or concert crowds either; he's a fictional character).

The next time I sat in that corner, I kept noticing a young woman in an adjacent chair, playing with her hair and staring at me. In both cases, it was just too, well, weird, and I had to get up and move.

On another occasion, I had to endure the carrying voice of a local radio personality who had apparently decided to call everyone he knew while waiting for a dinner companion. One of the rules of engagement seems to be that if someone is going to have a loud conversation, they'll have it directly across from me and make eye contact as often as possible. I notice that a number of people besides me still come into Starbucks with books and computers, and I can only surmise that they've been working mightily on their powers of concentration.

I'm not sure what's up with all these noisy, aggressive, in-your-face people, or why there seem to be so many of them. Maybe it's a form of temporary insanity. It's rather like being in a crowd of cawing, competing crows with bad manners and no concept of the indoor voice. I'm hoping the flock will suddenly take to the air and fly north for the summer . . . I believe there are plenty of wide open spaces in the Arctic. In the meantime, there are always ear plugs.