The picture was ordinary, stark and depressing: A subway car, packed with passengers, and everyone's head was bent down, staring at the objects in their hands. No conversation, no connection — just blank faces absorbed in private communion with the Information Rectangle.
You've noticed this practice, right? You've wondered: What have we become?
Thing is, it was a picture from the 1940s, and everyone was looking at newspapers. Not phones. You may tut-tut when you see people walking around looking down at their phones, but if you looked at old newsreels and saw everyone on the street reading a book or a paper, you'd say, "What a marvelously literate age."
Attachment to phones may be a bane; it's a wonder they don't put mattresses and cowcatchers on buses, given the number of people who stroll across the street staring down at the magic glowing slab. But the devices are marvelously useful when you realize you just poisoned your whole family, as I recently did.
What's that? Details, you say? Oh, if you insist.
Back up seven years. I bought a red light bulb for the garage because it was Christmas and I thought it would make the house look like a festive brothel that also developed photos. Every year I put it up in December and took it out around March.
Fast-forward to last Thursday. I'm unboxing a new gazebo. The previous gazebo had been lost in the Storms of June. The winds were bending the trees and tossing chairs, and I looked out the window to see the gazebo's fabric roof fill like a schooner's sail. The structure took flight, landing 15 feet away in the bushes.
I ran outside to save it, grabbing the metal poles in the teeth of a thunderstorm. Was I grounded? Well, in the sense of having a strong sense of family and community, yes, but not in the electrical sense. It occurred to me that I was quite likely to end up like a pop can placed in a microwave, and I let the gazebo go. Some say it came down by La Crosse, where it is venerated as gift from the gods.
So a replacement was needed. I found one that weighed a quarter-ton. If the wind takes that one, we're all ending up in Oz. It arrived in three boxes, and appeared to comprise 14 percent of Canadian lumber exports for the year. One of the posts was the size of a column from Northrop auditorium, and I was unable to guide it gently to a resting place against a shelf in the garage. It hit the shelf, and something fell and broke with a loud pop.
It was the festive red light. A CFL. You know, the twisty tubes of poisonous mercury we were all required to buy because they banned nonlethal bulbs.
First order of business: Stop breathing. Second item: Hit the garage door button and pray I make it out in time, because from everything we've been told, a broken CFL means that you alert the guys in white suits from FEMA who cordon off the block and call in the mobile morgues.
I stood at the end of the driveway, got out my phone, and googled "I just broke a CFL is everyone going to die now" and was directed to a page that told me how to deal with it. The area, the site said, should be ventilated for six hours, which meant I would have to sit in the driveway until 2 a.m. and make sure no one stole the bikes. But as long as I didn't bend over the shards and huff the fumes, we'd be OK.
The point of this story: What would people in the newspaper-only era have done?
"Harvey? Little Jimmy broke open the thermometer and is playing with the quicksilver. Is that safe?"
"I'm sure it's safe, but let me check the newspaper. Hmm ... nothing on the front page but Hitler. Let me read the second page and see if there's anything."
No, today you can learn anything right away. As I was reading about CFL disposal, Wife returned from a dog walk and said Scout had barked at another dog, which wasn't like him at all. I googled it right there on the driveway and said, "Well, it could be a brain tumor."
So don't be too harsh toward the people you see walking around, staring at their phones. For all you know, they could be googling "effects of mercury vapor on dog mood" because their spouse just found pieces of red glass in the garage and called to ask what that was about. It's the sort of information you just don't get from a newspaper.
Well, until now. If you bought this paper on the chance you'd have that question answered, the answer is: "No effect on dogs, probably."