Sunday, March 09, 2008

bowling (cafe-ing) alone?

I found myself recently with an hour between appointments in Center City Philadelphia and so retired to my favorite Italian caffe for a a bit of newspaper reading. I sat down at my table and after a few moments noticed something strange. It wasn't the coffee, a particularly well-brewed Italian espresso (that's why I go there), or the newspaper--though I was surprised to learn that the Tribune, an African-American daily, covers local politics much better than the Inquirer, a supposedly national daily. Rather it was the sound, or lack of it, that surrounded me.

Every spot in the caffe was taken, but no one was talking. Instead, each table was occupied by a single twenty- or thirty-something person and their laptop, the click-clack of the keys being interrupted occasionally by a private laugh or a furtive cellphone conversation, generally to confirm an appointment, and then back to the keyboard. As if feeling the need to reaffirm their humanity, one male and female, who happened to be seated next to each other, began ever so slightly to flirt with one another and trade notes about their respective on-line experiences. Otherwise, one could have been in a law school library, except that the library is usually a little bit more social. Every fifteen minutes or so, someone got up to refill their coffee.

I have been puzzled, all election year, by talk of "community" and "sacrifice" by young people who seem to actually experience little of either. But maybe that's the point. People who have grown up behind their keyboards, so much so that even an Italian caffe--the entire purpose of which is to socialize--becomes an isolating experience, are desperate for a politics that will provide what is otherwise missing to them. Whoever provides it is going to be in good shape for a long time to come. Whoever doesn't, watch out.


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