Long before I was married my parents and I were having dinner in a cafe in Geneva. Across the room from us was a young couple. The husband had pushed his chair back from the table and held a newspaper opened in his lap. The woman with him gazed around the small room at the other diners. My mother leaned over to me and said, "They're married."
I supposed then she was commenting on how married people stop having a lot to say to each other over meals though they continue to love and support each other. But as I look back on that scene, still vivid, I wonder if the woman at the other table was a writer or an artist, someone who collected images for her artwork.
The advent of the cell phone and the consequent change in manners that allow people to stare at their phones while ignoring the person or persons sitting opposite them at a dining table has been a god-send for artists and writers, at least for this writer. Until recently it was considered rude to stare at strangers. It may still be considered rude, but the strangers don't know I'm staring at them because they're staring at their phones.
At a recent lunch in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, my husband contemplated his meal and his cell and I contemplated the other diners. Sometimes I go through the day collecting images of one item or another--rust spots on cards, trash blowing in a street, dog leashes, and the like. This time I collected images of men carrying trays. There are numerous ways to carry a tray--one-handed at an angle; two-handed at waist level; with arms extended and the tray at mid chest; two handed along the long side; two-handed almost at chin level, with the chin thrust forward; and tray held tight against the waist with the shoulders forward.
Equally interesting, to me, were three young women friends eating together. They might have been related because they had similar bone structures but I was caught by their hair. Some writers leave out physical description, or describe their characters in such similar, vague terms that no character is distinct from another. But these three women belonged in a story together. One had long, light brown wavy hair; the next had curly darker hair a little shorter; and the third had almost black hair with tight curls lying flat to her head. I could study each one because all three were staring at their cells.
Near me sat two women of a certain age with similar reddish hair but very different bone structures. One wore a great deal of makeup and the other wore none, and both women were doting on a little girl who must have been someone's granddaughter. A third woman, apparently the girl's mother, also had reddish hair but looked nothing like the other three. They all had cells.
Instead of bemoaning the creeping tendency of technology to disrupt personal interaction, I welcome cell phones in restaurants and other places for liberating me to stare at people to gather what I need for my characters and stories. I no longer have to stare surreptitiously, apologize, or pretend I didn't realize what I was doing. And on top of all that, I can write it down and no one notices.