Cell Phones, Conversations, and the Common Good

The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee (pnavillage.org)

By Dick Gillett

It was crowded the other morning at Herkimer Coffee up on Greenwood Avenue.  I settled in at its long table with my machiatto and a book titled Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street. (No, I’m not an investor or stockbroker but a retired clergyman trying to understand how economic inequality got so bad in our country.)

Opposite me sat a young man intently reading a paperback book. I immediately noticed that unlike almost everyone else in the café that day, he had no cellphone or other electronic device out, just his book. He appeared to be a “Millennial,”probably on the young end of that age spectrum. Maybe his book was a reading assignment for a class? I made bold to ask him what he was reading.

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“It’s a book of essays by David Foster Wallace,” he replied. He explained that the particular essay he was reading was a review of a new dictionary, and that in it Wallace was pointing out how issues of class and power in the modern era are affecting the use of words.

Wow, I thought, this is a subject that even as an English lit major I had never thought about.

Jesse (this man’s name) was not sure he bought the author’s argument.

His mention of the words “class” and “power” led me to comment that the previous night my son and I had watched a little of the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton debate in a pub jammed with young people. “Did you watch the debate?” I asked Jesse.

“No, I had to work,” he responded.

Having pushed the conversation a little already, I resisted the temptation to turn to politics, so I asked him what his work is.

“I work as a host at a Sushi bar,”he said.

I rather lamely responded that I hoped he was doing okay.

“I’m doing OK,” he responded.

19524598We shook hands and I left the table.

Whether or not the politics of 2016 will bring us together as a country, I believe that we desperately need to recover a sense of the Common Good: that we are responsible for each other in our communities, and that “the moral arc of the universe… bends towards justice” (M.L. King).  Meanwhile, it felt very good to have even a brief conversation across the generations that finds common ground—especially without a cellphone lying on the table!

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Author Dick Gillett is a Member of PNA Village and a retired Episcopal priest. He has written numerous articles for our Village blog including, “The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee”, “Martín’s Journey to the White House”,  and “Johnny Cash & Global Warming”.

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2 thoughts on “Cell Phones, Conversations, and the Common Good

  1. Hi Grandpa,

    First of all, that book you were reading sounded very interesting. Secondly, I completely agree with the isolating sentiment that can arise when everyone around you is buried in a cellphone, especially, in my experience, on the subway when your in a tunnel at the same time. Anyway, I think you make a good point in connecting society’s urge to ignore the surrounding community and engage in another virtual one, to the rising sense of deviation from “the common good”. Since this other, virtual community is most likely much more homogenous with respect to the varying beliefs present since people gravitate towards those similar to themselves, it is possible that people simply have become more isolated from opposing opinions. Then again, the current political situation is the result of a whole lot more than simply too many iPhones.

    -Walker

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