In a crowded airport, virtually alone

Some enchanted evening,
You may see a stranger,
You may see a stranger,
Across a crowded room.
- Rodgers and Hammerstein

The woman at the airport, seated near the gate, was tall and tan and well groomed. She was 40ish. I am 50ish.

She wore no wedding band. Me? I divorced years ago.

As an anonymous traveler in search of company, I thought there might be an opening. For a meeting. Conversation to break up a tedious afternoon. Maybe something more. You never know.

But, like a score of others, she was on the phone. A tiny black clamshell placed close against her right ear, sending me the message: Do not approach. Do not engage. To do otherwise would be untoward. Unwanted. A nice smile will probably get you nowhere.

So it goes in public spaces all over the nation. In train stations and pedestrian malls and on great city avenues. Even at the beach. Anywhere one of America's estimated 100 million cellphones rings or beeps or plays "The Star Spangled Banner." These clearly amazing inventions - imagined in so much vintage fiction - are keeping us apart.

Surely they stop casual conversations. Possibly they stand in the way of uncounted chance meetings, frissons of talk, and happy accidents that can, under certain circumstances, lead to relationships. Maybe romances. Maybe children. Who knows?

At the very least, they suggest we keep our distance from one another. In bank or post office lines, they discourage shared complaints. Who among us wants to interrupt a fellow citizen's wireless connection? At outdoor cafes, who wants to comment on the brilliance of the sun or the luster of the moon to strangers preoccupied with invisible friends?

More than a decade ago, with bottle-sized phones and $1-a-minute rates, it was rare to find passersby cooing and clucking into high-tech wonders. We saved them for life's urgencies. For checking on baby sitters or escrow closings. They weren't security blankets. They weren't wardrobe accessories.

If you wanted sports scores or stock prices, you turned on a radio. In my sun-splashed little community, you could walk the sand for miles and not see a single face buried in plastic.

Back then, a smile might get you somewhere. Back then, the people around me didn't have cellphone minutes to burn. Parents and children and spouses didn't preview an evening's dinner chat for no great reason other than that doing so was cheap and possible.

And you thought the only nonstop talk was on 24-hour cable news. It's in theater lobbies and bowling alleys and car washes.

Recently, I played golf behind a cackling foursome, each on his respective cellphone. Maybe the match and the scenery just couldn't compete with the wireless connection. Maybe these men were old friends who already knew one another's stories. Or maybe they were strangers, paired at the clubhouse, who couldn't have cared less about new acquaintanceships.

Meanwhile, my would-be love life suffers. The woman at the airport, a smart-looking, Jill Clayburgh type, clutched her phone the way Barry Bonds holds a reliable bat. On her lap, there were papers and magazines and a novel. She paid them no attention. She talked and measured her manicure. Our flight was called. We sat rows apart. We landed, and she disappeared into a river of travelers.

When I was a young man, I lived in a nondigital world. Our music and art and literature weren't compressed into numbers. I met girls under the clock at New York's long-gone Biltmore Hotel. There were laughs and flirtatious glances.

And you never heard "The Star Spangled Banner" playing in anyone's briefcase.

Joseph Honig, a former CBS and AP journalist, writes for television and is executive producer of the National Lampoon Newsreel.

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