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My phone is silent, no one calling to chat. But then chatting on the phone is not so popular these days. We have so many other options, so many other ways to connect.
I check my Facebook page and scroll through posts about Trump. I can’t respond to those because pro-Trump supporters will fill my message box with name-calling, expletive-filled rants and dismissive statements. (You’re Canadian. Shut the [expletive] up.) I “like” a few of my friends’ posts as an attempt to spark a conversation but all I get is a thumbs-up response, or nothing at all. But then connecting on Facebook is not so popular these days.
Some of my children like to text, others use WhatsApp. I send a few sentences telling them what’s new in my life. And I wait for a response. A smiley face, a heart, another thumbs-up.
I move on to Twitter. Mostly I read the news. “Like” a few stories, retweet one or two. Should I post something? Should I post that I’m feeling lonely?
I decide I need to get out of the house. I go to the grocery store in search of milk and bread and human contact. All the customers are on their phone, making plans or double-checking items on their list. “The avocado’s aren’t ripe. Do you still want them?” “Do we need eggs?” But they’re not asking me. I avoid the self check out, convinced that it takes jobs from real people, convinced that if I use it, I’m really doing the checkout person’s job without pay. Plus, I want some human contact, a little conversation. I line up, put my few items on the conveyor belt along with my trusty recyclable grocery bag. The cashier punches in the numbers, speaks to me, without looking up: “Need a bag?” Doesn’t she see the bag along with the groceries? “No, thank you,” I say. She waves her hand toward the credit card machine. I tap. I pack my own groceries.
I’m feeling lonely.
I stop at the local coffee shop. I will not order my coffee to go. I will sit in the café, chat with strangers, maybe make a new friend. The young man behind the counter says, “Two dollars,” hands me a coffee cup, waves me toward the sugar, cream and stir sticks. Self-serve. I survey the seating area. Not everyone is on their cell phone: some are using their laptops; many are using earphones. I drink my fair-trade Guatemalan coffee: it’s good, but there’s no one to tell.
I drive to the library to return books and DVDs. All the computer stations are full. There are a few people reading books but I can’t really speak to them, can I? Can’t really ask them how they’re enjoying that novel; tell them that I like that author too, or start a conversation about characters and setting and dialogue. It’s the library – ssh!
I’m feeling lonely.
I stop at my local bank. They’ve been closed for a few weeks doing some renovations, “to serve you better.” I walk past the ATMs in the lobby and notice that inside, all the bank teller counters are gone. In the corner is one more ATM and a sole employee waiting to show people how to use the machine. Should I feign ignorance just for a little conversation? I do. I say I’ve misplaced my PIN and have to create a new one for my debit card; the young man is helpful and doesn’t seem to mind my ubiquitous questions. I ask about the fate of the bank tellers, one of whom was planning to become a writer. I usually chose her line so we could chat a bit about writing contests and publishing and writer’s block. Now she’s missing. The young man assures me that all the tellers have been offered alternate positions at other banks. It’s not that I don’t believe him; it’s just that if banks are moving to mostly machines, how many tellers can they move to other self-serve banks? I ask him if he thinks we will become a cashless society and he hesitates. Maybe he wants to humour me; maybe he wants to gauge my position. I tell him that Sweden and the United Kingdom are already cashless societies, and he nods. Then I tell him that my 19-year-old grandson says that he feels sorry for homeless people because his generation doesn’t carry cash. He tells me that he always speaks with them, “How you doing? Can I buy you a coffee? A doughnut?” I’m running low on chitchat; the bank employee’s looking restless; time to move on.
My last stop of the day is at a new Japanese restaurant in my neighbourhood. The sign advertises a set price – a sort of all you can eat buffet, I think. There are lots of photos of various dishes posted on the window, and that encourages me to come inside because my knowledge of Japanese food is pretty scarce. There’s a hostess who bows to me and I follow her to my seat. She hands me an iPad. On the screen are duplicate photos of various foods along with a small square that says, “order” and another spot to specify how many servings. “Tap here.” So I tap various foods, tempura and udon with seaweed, and in a few minutes a server brings my choices and places them on the table. Like the hostess, he, too, bows. I eat in silence. No one approaches to ask if everything’s all right, if I need more water, if I’m enjoying the food, ready for the bill. I check the iPad. It tells me where to tap for the bill, for the credit card machine: debit or credit? More bowing. Silence accompanies me as I leave the restaurant.
At home, my phone is flashing, I have a message. I too light up. It’s from my youngest grandson, who is 6. He’s sent me a few emojis of my favourite things: my Fiat, red lipstick, a heart and a happy face. What can I say? I respond with xo but really, I’m feeling lonely.
Maria Coletta McLean lives in Toronto.