And, just so, when I’m buying those socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts “I love you!” into her little phone, I am powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted. Yes, a lot of domestic things get shouted in public which really aren’t intended for public consumption; yes, people get carried away. But the phrase “I love you” is too important and loaded, and its use as a sign-off too self-conscious, for me to believe I’m being made to hear it accidentally. If the mother’s declaration of love had genuine, private emotional weight, wouldn’t she take at least a little care to guard it from public hearing? If she truly meant what she was saying, from the bottom of her heart, wouldn’t she have to say it quietly? Overhearing her, as a stranger, I have the feeling of being made party to an aggressive assertion of entitlement. At a minimum, the person is saying to me and to everyone else present: “My emotions and my family are more important to me than your social comfort.” And also, often enough, I suspect: “I want you all to know that unlike many people, including my cold bastard of a father, I am the kind of person who always tells my loved ones that I love them.”
Or am I, in my admittedly now rather lunatic-sounding irritation, simply projecting all this?
The cell phone came of age on September 11, 2001. Imprinted that day on our collective consciousness was the image of cell phones as conduits of intimacy for the desperate. In every too-loud I love you that I hear nowadays, as in the more general national orgy of connectedness–the imperative for parents and children to connect by phone once or twice or five or ten times daily–it’s difficult not to hear an echo of those terrible, entirely appropriate, heartbreaking I love yous uttered on the four doomed planes and in the two doomed towers. And it’s precisely this echo, the fact that it’s an echo, the sentimentality of it, that so irritates me.
My own experience of 9/11 was anomalous for the lack of television in it. At nine in the morning, I got a phone call from my book editor, who, from his office window, had just seen the second plane hit the towers. I did immediately go to the nearest TV, in the conference room of the real-estate office downstairs from my apartment, and watch with a group of agents as first one tower and then the other went down. But then my girlfriend came home and we spent the rest of the day listening to the radio, checking the Internet, reassuring our families, and watching from our roof and from the middle of Lexington Avenue (which was filled with pedestrians streaming uptown) as the dust and smoke at the bottom of Manhattan diffused into a sickening pall. In the evening, we walked down to 42nd Street and met up with an out-of-town friend and found an unremarkable Italian restaurant in the West 40s which happened to be serving dinner. Every table was packed with people drinking heavily; the mood was wartime. I got another brief glimpse of a TV screen, this one showing the face of George W. Bush, as we were departing through the restaurant’s bar. “He looks like a scared mouse,” somebody said. Sitting on a 6 train at Grand Central, waiting for it to move, we watched a New York commuter angrily complain to a conductor about the lack of express service to the Bronx.