Essay "Loss of Contact"

Published: December 10th 2008
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I know I haven't sent anything in a long while. It's been a whale of a semester. So much change, so much growth... why does growing seem to always hurt so much? Here is an essay for public essay

One night a couple of weeks ago, I made an emergency beer run to Tops. I had never been to Tops before, and so after grabbing the beer and returning to the front to pay, I was shocked to find that none of the check out lines were open. There were no cashiers, there were no customers, there were no high schoolers placing the items in bags. There was not a soul in sight. After prowling up and down the main corridor, I realized that the grey machines by the entrance had replaced the traditional check out line. A quick reading of the illustrated steps drawn on the front of the machine revealed that I was expected to scan and bag my own items. Then, I was expected to insert cash into this monstrosity as if buying a metrocard. I wouldn’t get to flirt with the young check out girls, or make jokes with the man in front of me in line. I wouldn’t get to call the cashier by her first name (taking advantage of the name tag of course), or complain about inflating prices.
Standing alone in front of this humungous box, and hearing the fluorescents tick above me, I felt alone. An existential dread came over me as I looked around at the empty aisles and stacked displays of discount cereal. I may have never felt so empty. I attributed it to these newfangled, impersonal machines. But I had no alternative. The focus groups had spoken and so I had to get on with it, I had to figure out how to use this contraption and get out with my beer and my sanity.
I looked all over the box of beer for the bar code. I finally found it hiding in the bottom corner and scanned it. Having failed to have it read, I scanned it again, and saw the contraption blink out the total. As I went to my wallet to pay, an older woman with dyed blonde hair and a forehead laced with wrinkles came to the supervising booth in the middle of the four self-check out machines where, I imagine, she was supposed to be all along. She looked down at the desk and began fiddling with the drawer.
I walked past her, but stopped just as I was about to reach the doors. “Why do they have these self-checkouts?” I asked her over the beer that I cradled against my chest.
“Huh?” she replied. From her tone, she might as well have said, “Go away.”
“Why do they have these things?” I repeated. “I like having cashiers to talk to.”
She shrugged and turned forward again, placed her two elbows on the desk and rested her head in her hands. I went through the door and have not been back to Tops since.
Usually, I relish going to the supermarket. On the one hand, I am a glutton and so I love being surrounded by food. But on the other hand, the supermarket is a place where I always have a reason to engage my fellow shoppers in conversation. Since the aisles are continually being moved around and my memory was never very good, I am often left without a clue as to where the less common items such as grated coconut or prune juice are. And so this gives me a reason to ask my fellow customers. Even if they don't know, it gives me an opportunity to joke, to look them in the eyes, to connect. But I find that more and more, we do our utmost to avoid situations where we need the help of others. The self-checkout seems like independence. Yet this apparent independence is robbing us our ability to connect.
Built into the American myth is the idea that to depend upon another person is a sign of weakness. Our culture constantly heralds the glory of the individual. But, as the saying goes, "The self-made man tends to worship his own creator." Feeling like the creator, the titan around whose actions life revolves, is perhaps a useful conception for getting rich. But it can also make one unmindful of the ways in which we are connected to others and the world around us. To make one's life by one's self is heroic, it is epic, and ultimately, it is both a distortion of fact and a quick recipe for unhappiness.
Think of a CEO of a large company. I imagine that he would have worked hard- overtime, sleeping in the office, etc.- to get to the top. And I can imagine this man both claiming to have made it on his own, and instructing his son on the importance of networking. But all along the way, he was helped by others.
For the truth is that at all times we are engaged in a web of connections, without whose tug we would not only be alone, but die. We probably do not grow the food we eat or stitch our own clothes. As I look around my room, I see that my shoes are made in China and my television is from Taiwan. My shirt is from the United Kingdom and the clementines that I ate this morning are from Argentina. Yet often we think we are operating fully by ourselves, that we rely on no one, that we are self-sufficient. This error in perception comes, I believe, from the lessening of personal contact.
It used to be that you saw where your food was grown, you saw the mill where it was refined and you knew the baker whose labors resulted in the bread that sat at your table. It used to be that you knew the butcher and saw him hacking off the neck of a squawking chicken. If you needed shoes, you went to the cobbler; if you needed clothes, you went to the tailor. In a sense, you knew that to survive, you needed these people amongst whom you lived. If there was a famine, not only the baker and the miller would suffer, but so would everyone else. If the tailor died and didn’t have an apprentice, then you might have to learn how to stitch your own shirts. In understanding the degree to which our survival is hinged upon the flourishing of others, those who lived in self-sufficient communities appreciated each other more.
This is not to say that we should drop all of our commitments, secure of a patch of land, and return to the past. Rather, if we first see the ways in which our prosperity is dependent upon external, often unseen factors, we are left with a humility that admits our own frailty. If you invincible, then there is no reason to rely on others. But if you admit to your own weakness, then you can have compassion for the falls of others, and create relationships to which you can turn if you fall yourself.
Living in this world in which we are removed from our food sources and modes of production, I find it usual to practice making ourselves vulnerable. It is for this reason that I enjoy being lost. Whenever I go to a gas station and ask for directions, people jump at the chance to help, just as I do for those who are lost in my neighborhood. Perhaps this quick interaction feels good because of the infrequency with which we are given the opportunity to help.
In buying our books online, we may save a little money and a couple minutes of time, but something is lost. Getting books at the bookstore (especially the local ones), we wind up finding other intriguing titles and asking the proprietor for advice. The last time I went to the local bookstore in Ithaca, I bought a couple of Steinbeck novels. Frank, the man at the register with a neatly groomed black mustache and a short cropped black crew cut, happened to be a serious Steinbeck aficionado. And so, without even intending to, I learned more about Steinbeck (an idol of mine), than I would have from the novel I had just bought.
There is no substitute, at least as far as I can see, for one on one, face to face conversation. We have tried to replicate it through chatrooms and online games, through dating services and phones. We have attempted to bring people together through Facebook and myspace, over blogs and online forums. But they must be auxiliaries to the communities upon whose ground (the real kind, not that of virtual reality) our feet walk.
There is a story of an African tribe who knew little of the modern, outside world. One day, an outsider came to them and after learning their language, decided to bring them a television. For the entire first day the whole town gathered around this set, enraptured by the pictures. But when the outsider woke up the next morning, he found that the television had been discarded. After enquiring, he heard from person after person that they already had a village storyteller, and that the box could never take the place of a human.


10th December 2008

ah, thanks!
thanks for this, nate. it's such a good christmas-time message, also. I was so excited yesterday when a woman asked me where 79th street was. Then I was elated when she revealed she was actually looking for the "american museum of natural history". Ah, a chance to prolong this short conversation for a few more seconds! this essay brings up a lot of interesting ideas- from globalization and "business" and "development" and how these things affects each of us on a personal, emotional level, to the impact of gender dynamics. I can easily say that when I'm in my neighborhood I generally dread people talking to me because 90% of the time it's a man harassing me. But again, this could be a result of the impersonal nature of living in NYC- people don't interact with those who live on the same street as them. These men don't see me as a neighbor they live with- someone who goes to the shops they go to, buys the same food, goes to the same street fairs, etc. anyway, thanks for sharing!
11th December 2008

natham, this is great. so interesting and, as catie said, brings up so many issues. this was exactly what i struggled with after coming back from india...suddenly surrounded by people in their cars with the windows rolled up, who won't make eye contact with you in the street, automated check-machines, even just having so much space in our houses here. i read a study that said the reason that so many people remember college as the best years of their life is because those were the 4 years they lived the way, deep down, we want to live - in a close community, surrounded by each other all the time. an awesome book that looks at this issue in the context of environmental sustainability is Bill McKibben's 'Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future' keep up the good work. see you soon!

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