Our Town downtown
July 31, 2006
We pay an extra $7 a month on our cell phone bill to have our free evening minutes kick in at 7:00 instead of 9:00. We complained when our new contract asked for payment to get those early hours we used to get for nothing, but they could have asked for $14 and we’d have signed on. You have to have 7:00. You can’t call anybody after 9:00 without knowing you’re cutting into some TV show they’re hooked on. They probably aren’t going to answer, or, if they do, are only going to give you one ear. The other ear and both eyes aimed, with a new kind of intensity, with the one distracted ear occupied on the phone, at a big television set.
Even 7:00 is not a guarantee anymore. The feeling-guilty will tell you they’re watching Discovery or the History Channel, but they aren’t. The hours before 9:00 are the re-run times and they’re probably memorizing the lines they haven’t already. You almost can’t call people at night. Mothers used to cradle a portable phone in their ear and talk while they were bathing their kids more readily than most of us will take a call now during Deadwood (we’ve never seen Deadwood, but we know it’s being talked about as though it were a great, gritty book, which it isn’t).
The TV is on in most houses and apartments from 6:00 on, maybe earlier, until midnight, likely later. That is six hours—and more--a night. Don’t even get us started on TiVo which is allowing people to think they’re raging against the machine by skipping commercials, when really all they’re doing with it is saving precious minutes to watch an extra show of some kind.
There seems to be nothing to do in the house anymore but watch the tube. The big sucker is right there, dominating the room, and getting more dominant all the time, with the wall models and high definition. And even if there’s nothing on, there’s NetFlix with its Great Books illusion. It’s all hard to escape. If you’re in the house, you’re in front of the box, your expanding butt in the same place for all six hours.
There are only a few places to go to escape. (One sadly is not the library here which ought to be open till 11:00 every night of the week.) The best places to go are bars and bookstores and Starbucks. All of which are better for you than staring at pretty-much-boring-repetitive stuff on television. And even if bars have increasingly festooned their walls with giant screens, all three places offer a lot for human beings to do that is more productive and more potentially an epiphany than staying in the house on a couch.
Bars are everywhere in the city. Why not walk out to one after dinner for an hour and a half. Two drinks a day are good for you they say. If you’re single you might meet someone. If you’re married or a couple you might be turned on by the whole experience. Norman Mailer once said that couples likely don’t have much sex after a night of TV watching, so numbing is the whole experience. Better to go have a couple than sit at home. You don’t have to go to a club. A good neighborhood bar is a great thing. Be a regular. Read the paper there, look up at their tube if you have to, watch the Mets, but don’t sit at home like Montag’s wife in ‘Fahrenheit 451’.
Or you can go to a bookstore. There are plenty of chain and independent stores in this city with an amazing amount of great books to look through and buy. You can have a coffee or something and sit there with your purchase and be stimulated in a way that Chris Matthews can’t stimulate you.
Or, of course, you can go to Starbucks. It’s not fashionable to say it but Starbucks may be the best cultural advancement in this country in a decade. We’ve seen in countless of their windows, as we’ve walked by, people reading, talking, working on their homework or their play or writing their Christmas cards or paying bills or falling in love or just looking out the window. There was no place else to do that before Starbucks, bars and bookstores being the lone exceptions. Certainly there weren’t coffee houses in such numbers, serving quality like Starbucks does. There just weren’t. And if you want to complain about their everywhere-ness, what are a hundred or so stores that stay open late in your neighborhood, compared to the millions of TV sets in this city and all the thirsty eyes watching them?
-- Bill Gunlocke