Another kind of connection

Around 10 a.m. one weekday, I sat at Starbucks on Cedar Road, taking the first sip of my ‘tall.’

Expecting to be enveloped by a warm coffee shop buzz, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings. It was so quiet, so study-hall quiet. The walls were lined with tables for two but only solo patrons sat there. Intense solo patrons. They were all staring at their laptops, most with cell phones placed carefully on their tables. One young man was chewing on his finger, another holding his chin, yet another stretched and yawned, but never stopped staring. 

Two women sat by the window next to each other, hunched over, head sets on, fingers sliding delicately over their laptop touch pads in a kind of synchronicity.

Then I got it. The wall is lined with plugs so, of course, the laptoppers hug the walls.

All of them are starring, expressionless, brows furrowed. It can’t be good news. But the point is, there are no clues. It is so very, very private, formidably private. What is so compelling? Biochemistry or Facebook?

Then, I note that in the inner circle of the room, three women are having a meeting. Two men are reading the newspaper—older men. Here it is—the generational divide. OK, I admit I am from that talk-touch-smile-laugh world. No blog, no Web site.

My first whiff of this new culture came years ago when a son came home and plugged in at the kitchen table like it was a gas station. He sat down and assumed that rounded position. How great it was to have him home, but was he really home or connected only to the innards of that flat little box? My kitchen table had always been for another kind of connection.

I’ve been fascinated by people holding their precious little cell phones cradled in their palms. They stare, they fondle, they gently touch the buttons. The phone is a kind of love object or comfort object like the blankie. What could possibly be so absorbing? You don’t really know, I found, 'til you learn to text.  “I can meet—can’t—an hour later?—bring a friend?” iPhones take it to a new level, with fingers flicking down, down, sideways, sideways. No way to break into that tapping.

But the laptop is something else. Put a human in front of it and it becomes an impenetrable cocoon. It occupies the hands and the eyes, and the posture curves to make a complete impermeable sphere. The screen completes the membrane. It is my friends, my intimacy, my information, my music. It gives entirely new meaning to the expression “left to one's own devices.”

And I dared to sit there with only my eyes, my notebook and my pen. 

I moved on, away from the intensity of the Case Western Reserve University students to Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road, a place more "Heightsian." Two groups of four are meeting, planning, perhaps, the future of the Heights and the world. There is a hint of that old coffee shop buzz.

But even Phoenix was not full-on—rubbing shoulders with a lively, talky humanity. Six laptoppers were huddled in a row along the wall, two with headsets, presenting, once again, this formidable public isolation. 

The laptop-cell phone-headset triumvirate makes for a kind of enclosed, portable life, undoubtedly satisfying, although strangely not lived in the rough and tumble of the here and now. It makes me wonder, and I admit I am one still limping across the great digital divide, where are we going with these self-constructed, autonomous lives?

Eleanor Mallet is a longtime explorer of the nooks and crannies in the Heights. She may be reached at

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Volume 3, Issue 4, Posted 3:02 PM, 03.22.2010