Whenever I eat alone in a restaurant, I bring a little notebook and jot down what I’m thinking. It helps me feel less awkward, as if people might be wondering why I don’t have a lunch partner. Sometimes I write down bits and pieces of what I’m overhearing, conversation I may use later in something I’m writing.
I read an Anne Tyler interview once where she said she takes her notebook everywhere and writes down what she hears around her — dialogue, inflection, words that lead with the famous Baltimore accent. So when I pull out the little notebook, I just pretend to be her. I’m always hoping someone will mistake me for her, too, like they’re thinking: Hmmm, maybe she grew her bangs out. Hmmm, she looks a little heavier than she did on her last book jacket, but — you know — that happens. As far as I can tell, no one has been fooled yet.
I had my notebook out one day last fall when a group of high school kids walked into a sandwich place in my neighborhood. They took three tables and slid them together and, as their first official act, plopped down their phones. Their talk kept getting interrupted by different customized ring tones and scores of texts going back and forth with other kids who weren’t at the table.
It felt exhausting to me, not being able to understand all of what was going on. And I’d had this exact feeling when I was a kid. Instead of technology, though, it was Italian that did me in.
Our neighbors across the street were first generation immigrants from Milan. Their niece, who was my age and bilingual, would come to visit from Brooklyn with her Italian-speaking parents. One summer she and I got to be friends and I was invited across the street often, where she acted as my interpreter.
In my mind, her extended family ate a lot, more often than my family did, it seemed. Maybe the dinners were just longer and louder. Conversations constantly switched from English to Italian and back again without warning, sometimes in the same sentence. My friend never lost a word of whatever the topic was, and I was jealous of that. I found getting half of any story frustrating.
One day I said to her, as if this would be no big deal, “I want you to teach me Italian.”
“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “If you just try really hard, you’ll be able to understand everything my parents say. Just listen to e-v-e-r-y word.That’s what I do.”I know she wasn’t purposely steering me wrong, that in her mind that’s what she’d done since she learned to talk.
I, of course, continued to be exasperated that I’d get to the end of a story and suddenly the medium would change on me and I’d be lost. I must say that what these high school students were doing at the next table wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for old people like me either. A lot of questions seemed to go unanswered as their heads bobbed up and down from their phones, and their thumbs were in constant motion. They wore earbuds and went from listening to talking to reading without warning.
What really caught my attention, though, was when they started talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination. The 50th anniversary was coming up, and I’m sure there were hashtags involved, whatever the hell that means. For all their advanced technology, though, their facts were sketchy, and one of them — who kept showing his hand with words like Los Angeles and killed in the hotel kitchen — was talking about the other Kennedy assassination.
For a minute, I thought about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight, perhaps the old school teacher in me. I realized, though, that if I started talking in an I was there tone, they would look at me as if I’d been front row at Ford’s Theatre, too.Because when I did the math, I realized that, chronologically, they’re about as far from Kennedy’s death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stayed silent.
It’s easy to keep quiet when you realize that you came of age watching a black and white TV, and the kids at the next table have a good chance of somehow confusing that with Morse Code. Or Mamie Eisenhower with Mary Todd Lincoln. Or any number of mix-ups that would make you feel #old.
[Up on Thursday: “11/22/63 at Parkside Junior High School”]