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Culture

What Happens When You Put Your Phone Down

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The feeling that I was born in the wrong time is never stronger than when I enter a bar or restaurant and scan the room only to see the tops of the heads of patrons glued to their screens.

The New York City pub was once a redoubt of friendly banter, protected from the aggression and profit-seeking that defines all manner of interaction with strangers outside its walls. The pub was a true “third place,” in the words of Ray Oldenburg, where one could go to have those conversations that are only possible with people who are not entirely strangers, but not necessarily close friends either. No longer. Now, the pub, like the train, the restaurant, the theater, and basically everywhere else is just a place to rest your body while your mind scrolls endlessly.

Pubs being what they are these days, I was taken aback to find the real thing in my corner of Brooklyn last week. Out for a walk, I came across one that I could tell at a glance might offer a respite from the screen-gazers who populate its Williamsburg counterparts. It had an Irish name but none of the kitschy “Irish Pub TM” accoutrements found in its mid-town impersonators. Inside, I found six or seven older men standing at the bar, sipping plastic cups full of Budweiser, one of two beers on tap. (This crowd started drinking before the Brooklyn craft beer craze kicked off, and they seemed perfectly fine with that.)

Taking my seat at the bar, I ordered what the regulars were drinking and took in my surroundings. Firefighter memorabilia covered the walls and matched the T-shirts and sweatshirts worn by at least half of the men standing at the bar.

Not an iPhone in sight; I breathed a sigh of relief.

As I was about eight ounces into my 32-ounce Bud, an older man sitting down the bar in a Red Hook “Hookers” firefighter sweatshirt and a frayed baseball hat turned to me and began talking. No introduction, no exchange of names or pleasantries; he just started talking like we had known each other for years.

After feeding the algorithm beast all day, here was some human interaction. Not the kind of interaction you’d have with your wife or the friends you’ve known for years, in which you slide into those familiar patterns that attracted you to one another in the first place, but a more removed banter, filled with introductory facts.

Here were Eddie’s facts (I learned his name roughly an hour later, as I was leaving). He had lived in the neighborhood for 70 years and had seen it change from the ethnic, working-class enclave of his youth to the yuppie-utopia of 2021, the existence of which I testified to with my very presence in his bar. He was a Vietnam veteran: “My father served, my uncles served, I thought I was serving my country,” here he smirked, as if to mock his youthful idealism. He came home from the war and got a job as an accountant but never took to it: “We did all the work but that bastard [his boss] took all the credit.” Then, he became firefighter and immediately fell in love with the job.

“We put our whole hearts into that job,” he said, showing the slightest crack in his gruff demeanor for the first time since I sat down.

Eddie went on to describe how the job isn’t what it used to be. What is?

“There’s barely any fires anymore, it’s all EMS calls,” he said, as if that was a bad thing.

Eddie described how, back in the 1970s and ’80s, landlords were constantly burning their own buildings down for the insurance money, something I thought I knew about from reading The Bronx Is Burning, but something about which Eddie actually knew; he had been there.

It was quickly becoming clear that Eddie was a regular’s regular. He never had to order a drink, one just materialized in front of him as soon as its predecessor was gone. When he went to the bathroom, somewhere between rum-and-coke four and five, the bartender shot me a knowing glance.

“He’s got your ear, eh? Well I’m glad you’re here because if it wasn’t for you, he’d have mine,” the barkeep said with a laugh.

Now properly acquainted, Eddie felt comfortable asking me how much I paid in rent. I told him.

“It’s crazy, I know,” I said as a look of incredulity settled over his face. (He’s lived in the same rent-controlled apartment for decades.)

“It’s not crazy, it’s insane,” he barked.

Eddie spent the rest of our conversation urging me, pleading with me, to leave the neighborhood, and if possible, leave the city entirely.

What didn’t he like about it?

“The clientele,” he’d say, refusing to elaborate. “It’s the clientele.”

There’s nobody real left here, he seemed to be saying.

It was a talk I never would have had if my head was buried in my phone or if Eddie had ever bothered to buy one, and I’m glad to have had it.

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