Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Bus Story


Edward Bernays deployed one of the most nefarious psych strategies in history that took hold of Madison Avenue and has been at the core of spam ever since. Bernays' hunch was to take his famous Uncle's (SIgmund Freud) theory of the unconscious desires and leverage them to do the bidding of spammers. While Bernays and the chart he set America on was a fateful one, it laid the groundwork for an even deeper cut into our psyches, a world he would never see over half a century later.

Filmmaker John Milius once said, and I greatly paraphrase from memory, America is about making and keeping you dis-satisfied. Your car isn't good enough. You don't live in the right part of town. You don't look good enough and you don't have the right clothes or mate.

Today, we have a milestone in human history; in the palm of your hand, you can learn just about anything. From particle physics to playing basketball to the Mongol Empire, it's all there. But what do the millenials use it for? Showing their private parts.

This self-absorption is perfectly in line with Freud and Bernays, because if it's true that most lead lives of quiet desperation, then the social network is like the ultimate psychic crack. My life is boring and exceedingly average, but let me check my Facebook page... Aha! People love me, and here's the proof!

24-7, people can now see that their lives matter, because others tune in and say so. "Likes," comments, text messages, photos, videos... all attest to the justification of our existence. When you have 400 "friends" giving you a "thumb's up," it's validation reified, concrete and indisputable.

* * * * * * * *

One of my favorite things to do as a kid in middle school was to go downtown before the school year with Ma and get my school clothes. Bullock's and Bullock's Wilshire were my favorites, and I have fond memories of having lunch with Ma afterwards at the old LA landmarks like La Luz del Dia or Clifton's.

Ma always looked nice when we ventured out; hair done, nice skirt, blouse, a sweater or jacket, and heels. The ladies at Bullock's were similarly appointed, but more, they were helpful. Customer service was the norm. I do admit to looking at some of those ladies more than I should have.

Pulling into a gas station then is perhaps the starkest contrast of the customer pleasing America of my youth and today's wing it approach. An attendant, usually a guy in a uniform but sometimes a grease monkey, would pop the hood, check the oil, water, tire pressure, clean the windows, pump the gas. He'd "Ma'am" Ma, and I never gave it a second thought. It was just the way things were.

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One of the consequences of trying times is the tendency to concentrate almost solely on one's self. Here's something that happened to me last week.

I was riding the bus to a local school to avoid parking, as the semester had just opened up. Crammed like sardines, I managed to find a seat, and in about 5 minutes we stopped and a lady of about 70 got on. She happened to end up standing right in front of me, facing away. So, I decided to survey the surrounding kids; each was in her or his own world, virtual or psychic. So, Ma's boy that I am, I tapped the lady on her shoulder and offered my seat.

LADY: Oh, that's nice of you, but I'm getting off very shortly, but thank you.

Turns out we both got off at the same stop. As we hit the street, she turned to me.

LADY: You know, that really was very sweet of you. These kids today... I'm an inconvenience to them. I'm just in their way.

I was kind of embarrassed. She struggled a bit and then said some of the saddest words I've ever heard.

LADY:  Or worse, I'm simply invisible to them.

That lit the fire, and I have to say, I got a little pissed off.

ME: I was raised in a different time, in a different way, by a mother who gave a damn about how people treat each other.

LADY: (nods) And thank god you were.

 * * * * * * * *


Now, fast forward a few days from the bus incident. I'm at the gym talking to one of the front desk gals - let's call her "Carol," who happens to be in her 20's. I'm telling her my "bus story" when, right in mid-sentence, a kid of about 20 walks up and just begins peppering her with questions.

Carol looks at him, and then I say, a notch louder than my interruptor, "You see? THIS is EXACTLY what I'm talking about!"

The kid stops, looks at me with that blown away look one gets when forced to see themselves outside of their own perception, and utters a meek "Oh, excuse me," more perfunctorily than anything.

As a young person, it never would have entered my mind to interrupt two adults, much less not to offer my seat to an elder, or hold the door open for them. This may seem like overly simplistic, undue analysis, but I don't think so. I think it's telling. Moreover, I think it matters.

Our governments mouth off about a lot of things; be afraid of ISIS, Al-Qaeda are plotting our demise, fear Iran... Hey, I'm guilty of fear mongering, what with my obsession with the economic meltdown of 2008 and the associated psychopaths. But I think the destruction of America is here, much closer than we think, and is so in our faces, it perhaps is like not being able to see the forest for the trees.

After all, if we can't simply be decent to our elders, let alone each other, what are we?