Blame this on your least favorite politician from either party, as we are all wont to do, but the fact is that there are more homeless and mentally challenged folks wandering the streets of US cities than in any time in our history. Politically incorrect though it may be, we have all crossed a street or ducked into an open doorway to avoid interaction with somebody we perceive to be different from us, someone who frightens us on some subliminal level for reasons we cannot quite put words to. For me, it is one particular guy (henceforth to be referred to as “Person A”) who routinely carries on a heated conversation, sometimes elevating to the status of outright quarrel (much like a tropical storm is upgraded to a full-blown hurricane after reaching a certain critical intensity), with only himself on both ends of the dispute. Bordering on (but stopping just short of) unkempt, he flails himself along the sidewalk of a nearby small town, apparently engaged in some inner battle, which ramps up my anxiety factor exponentially as he approaches the entryway to Tim Hortons (that’s not a typo; Tim has no apostrophe) where I stand in line for my morning fix of caffeine and sugar.
Three people ahead in the line, a teenage girl (who shall be known as “Person B”) is reading her boyfriend the riot act via mobile phone, oblivious to the subdued grins and cocked eyebrows of nearby eavesdroppers. Apparently he did something pretty heinous, or at least she thinks he did; repeated references are made to someone named Megan, presumably his cohort in whatever mischief he may have been getting up to. Of course we cannot hear the boyfriend’s end of the conversation, assuming that he could even fit a word in edgewise amidst her rapid-fire tirade. Oddly, even though she is tattooed and pierced profusely, her jeans artlessly torn and dirty, and she is hovering at the thin edge of rage, nobody feels in the slightest threatened by her; she is just a minor harmless amusement in an otherwise humdrum weekday.
So what then is the quantitative difference, as perceived by onlookers, between her and the aforementioned fellow engaged in the argument with himself? Why do we shrink from him and treat her with, at the worst, mild distaste? I would suggest that it is the simple addition of a cell phone into the mix. If one were to give Person A a cell phone through which to channel his rant, nobody would feel threatened or nervous; in fact, nobody would so much as pay him a second glance. He would simply fade into the white noise of the Tuesday morning, just like Person B, no threat to himself or those around him, queueing up for his large Double-Double (Tim-speak for coffee with two creams and two sugars) and a Maple Dip donut.
Just a little (fast) food for thought…