December 10, 2018

 

The Public Speaks

 
 
 

Who cares if our phones are tapped or that surveillance cameras watch us stumble down the street? People are so willing to reveal the details of their private lives, Big Brother might as well take five. Personal privacy is breaking for the exit faster than compact discs.

The lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel is painted the color of a strawberry Hostess Snoball. It's like a vast airplane hanger with a pink coconut ceiling. Two men sit in the lounge facing each other on a green silk couch. The smaller of the two is a faded celebrity. He is berating the bigger one in a voice loud enough to be heard by the valet parking attendants outside the hotel.

The big one is his manager. He is hunched over like a mendicant leaning toward his benefactor. "Why did you tell him how much money I'm getting?" the celebrity screams. "Are you crazy? Now he knows I'm getting $500,000, he wants it too!" The big man straightens his posture as if forced backwards by a blast. "Do you think he's worth the same money as me? Who's going to pay him? You?" The desk clerks adhere to the unwritten rules of those who serve five-star guests and pretend not to hear a word.

On the train a commuter is talking on his cell phone. He's recounting the details of his horrifying dental excavations. You fight your sense memory but it fights harder. You hear the shrieking drill and smell the burning enamel. You invent a mantra to block out the sound. Anything will do. "I like toast. I like toast." You chant it as fast as your inner voice can speak. "Iliketoast, Ilietost. It's useless. His words slip though every crack. Your concentration is tattered; you can't even count the thumps of the train on the tracks.

On the elevator a man is describing a weather delayed business trip to a colleague. His recollection is complete with gate numbers and seat assignments. The indicator light seems to be blinking in slow motion like the last five minutes on a schoolroom clock. When the doors open, you squeeze out, though still three floors below your office. You climb the stairs; every step takes you closer to serenity.

At the office, your cubicle neighbor had just become a new father. Dad calls his wife five times a day on speakerphone to monitor the condition of her sore nipples, her milk production, the status of her hemorrhoids, and the output of the baby's soiled diapers. It's possible that he enters the data on a spreadsheet.

That night in a restaurant the couple at the next table is whining about their kitchen renovation. The work has come to a halt as the Italian marble counter top is tied up in customs. We don't care if you're not our waiter, bring us the check or I will stuff several all-grain dinner rolls down that man's throat.

It sounds like mothers no longer explain to their children the difference between the Inside Voice and the Outside Voice. As a result, we have all become like priests listening to confessions, psychiatrists on sagging leather chairs and members of the audience sitting in complimentary front row seats for a play we never wanted to see. The world is overflowing with those with booming voices who give us no choice but to eavesdrop on the stories of their life. Every intimate secret is public domain.

It seems clear that our noise abatement laws need fangs. We should put a few restrictions on loud public speech. Sure, this could mean fiddling with the First Amendment, but this is something for the Supreme Court to decide. Of course it could take years -- decades if the ACLU gets involved.

Aren't these rather drastic measures to employ for what are, after all, not much more then breaches of courtesy? Only if you believe that yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater is worse than overhearing the details of a stranger's intestinal blockage. At least in a theatre you have half a chance to make it out the door.

-- Barry Udoff

Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-10-13


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