“Are you with the rotary?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Sorry,” I said. “If you guys are meeting here, I’ll move.” And I did. I got up from the stool and took my coffee and menu to a table by the windows.
It was a Sunday morning at the diner. I had stopped there on the way to the cottage, where my family was about to spend the entire summer. I figured I’d go up the Maine coast ahead of them, get the lay of the land, take in the sights, and get some breakfast. Soon, I’d carry all the junk I was hauling to the cottage, mow the lawn, pump the bike tires, stuff like that. I didn’t expect to interfere with the local Rotary’s weekly club breakfast on the first day.
It was going to be a long 13 weeks, even without making enemies of the local not-so-welcome committee.
The guy turned his head to look at me a couple times while I ate and read the newspaper at my table. No one else from the Rotary club ever showed up. I finished my triple-egger and slapped down a $20…okay, $10 and change—this wasn’t Cambridge.
It wasn’t until I was in the parking lot that I looked down and realized the grungy T-shirt I was wearing for a day of yard work, schlepping boxes, and light construction, was emblazoned with a huge Rotary club logo on the front. So that explains it! It came from an event they sponsored. I’d had the shirt forever and never noticed.
I’m sure he saw me heading for my car, a Prius with MA plates, arrogantly sporting a virtue-signaling enviromental symbol. I get to be the Masshole just because I’ve never looked at my own shirt.
I’ve never once been a member of anything like the Rotary. I coached my son’s scout troop for a couple years, and maybe a soccer team or two, until the kids got old enough for winning to matter—which meant an upgrade to a better coach.
The closest I’ve ever come joining anything was as a kid, when I quit cub scouts after four weeks, because the meetings conflicted with The Dukes of Hazzard.
There’s a theme in this hyper-digital era of smartphones and social media, where you see old-school diners like the one I stopped at displaying signs on the wall pleading for us to put the phones down and “talk to each other.”
But have you ever seen that happen? Not me. Before smartphones, we had newspapers, magazines, and paperbacks. Those were what we buried our heads into, rather than talk to total strangers. I remember what it was like. I was there. And I know the conversations were the same then as they are now – mostly pointless.
“Strike up a conversation!” crow those who, frankly, have been listening to too much Counting Crows. Get some originality first, folks.
This is why we stick to sports and weather, and there is a very good reason. Someone once said within a minute of talking to someone you’ll find out that you are totally incompatible on nearly every topic. ‘Mr. Jones’ may have a different tale to tell, but I’ve found this to be entirely true.
My Rotary-pal in the diner probably would have found that out about me—and me him—pretty darn quickly if I stayed at the counter.
Here’s another story: Here in New England, we have a pretty good NFL football team, and sometimes we have to go to a duckboat parade on a weekday. I know, I know, it’s awful. But here’s what happens when we get into town:
“Oh, you took your kids out of school, huh?” (Yeah, we did)
“Look at all these f–kin’ people, fair weather fans, bunch o’ f–kin’ d-bags.” (Yes, I shall concur, good sir, there exists a goodly multitude of revelers about)
“Dude, you got a light?” (Why, no, apologies, we don’t smoke, and we certainly don’t smoke THAT)
The real world is a loud and nutball place, and any conversation only gets worse, like a milder form of Godwin’s Law.
One thing you do when out with the fam at a parade is take a selfie. We did. Somebody offered to help, but a selfie needs to be a selfie. That’s the point. If someone takes it for you it’s not a selfie. So I declined.
And what do you think happened next? Yes, I got flak from the guy. I tried joking with him. “Actually, we had the camera set up wrong. It was a picture of you,” I said. He gave me a ‘What does that mean?’ look, so I backed away from the joke and said, “No, just kidding. It came out fine. Thank you.”
This was the guy who chided us for bringing the kids on a school day. I get it. I really do. Pulling kids out of school for something like this is really one of humanity’s favorite things to scold each other about. We love policing random strangers. We’ll do it online, we’ll do it when calling radio stations, and when writing letters to the editor. We’ll do it while complaining in a diner, and more and more nowadays, directly to each other.
It’s not better than just scrolling your phone.
If you’re bent out of shape because another person has stepped out of line somehow, why not try keeping it to yourself?
During that day, there may have been other random door openings and thank you‘s and excuse me’s, and ‘this is the way to the North End’, and stuff like that, but otherwise there wasn’t any discussion about much beyond that. Not even the weather (which, considering the glorious weather, there really should have been).
Nobody ever randomly ‘strikes up a conversation’ about digital marketing, financial strategies, or cyber-security exploits. We even sat in a popular restaurant near the State House where famously, laws are made over turkey club sandwiches and scotch-and-sodas. There was never any discussion of environmental or economic policy, though we did hear one table discuss how drunk they expected to get at the parade.
Hey, kids, ask them what they’re drinking…no, no, just kidding.
We’re all disconnected, which is as it should be, since most random people won’t share your interests, your situation, or your dreams. Even in similar situations, like at a gym or in school, your favorite topics will be wildly different. There are guys at my gym always talking with each other about real estate and landscaping. Sometimes they’ll compare Caribbean vacations. I would rather be shot by firing squad than get ensnared in any of that.
Let’s see if I can raise any conversation about sci-fi or guitar. No? Of course not. Most people at the gym get it. They’re working out, they’re listening to music, they’re watching the screens. That’s why I like the gym. In more than a dozen years, I’ve probably been in three conversations at a gym.
A gym conversation goes like this: Someone points to a machine. I wave it away, and they nod. This is how the gym should be.
So back to that long summer away from home. We stayed at this huge campground, and the kids made friends, I guess you could call them. I called them ‘people we’re going to cease to know on Labor Day’. And that’s exactly what they were. I never learned their names. What would be the point? Today we’re not in contact with any of those families.
I never did go back to that diner, either. I wonder if I would recognize Rotary Guy, or if he’d recognize me. Certainly not, right?
Maybe if I wear the shirt again.