Earlier today, I saw a photo of a street corner in NYC from the 1970s. The people didn’t look as weird to me as I thought they would. When I was young, they would’ve definitely looked strange, but back then, I had a very narrow view of acceptable contemporary fashion. Now that I’ve seen every fad come around a few times, nothing looks dated, anymore.
It made me feel a little envious because some of the people in that picture didn’t end up living long enough to see these times. I don’t mean that in a morbid way, but I imagine they got to live full and complete lives before the internet came along.
Before the internet, if you wanted to be exposed to interesting things like art, music, poetry, mind-expanding ideas, and exciting opportunities, you had to go to a city like New York. Once you got there, your survival depended on your ability to connect with the people there, and everyone was from a different walk of life. You had to see how they dressed, fed themselves, and made their money. It created the opportunity to acknowledge their humanness and accept how they chose to human.
Once the internet came along, it became possible to get stuff without interacting with anyone face-to-face. And now, we trade our art and ideas in a vacuum, where our thoughts are presented as separate from who we are.
Our lives don’t resemble the lives that came before ours. And, yeah, there are a lot of reasons that’s a good thing, but I think we can all acknowledge that it has also made life pretty chaotic, at least for the time being.
That’s not my point, though, my point: I take a lot of comfort in seeing my life echoed in the lives of other people, and the more the future marches on, the further away I feel from the humans who were human-ing before the internet.
I want to feel normal, but I mostly feel disconnected. For me, this isn’t an internet-specific condition. Back in the 1990s, just like in the 1970s, I had to go somewhere new to get my needs met. I went to those new places, and I met new people, but I was too shy to connect with the people in those new places. I didn’t start finding connection until I started going online, then I was online almost nonstop from 1994 onward. (“Shy” isn’t a strong enough word, but I won’t get into it now, just know I had serious trouble communicating face-to-face. Online communication wasn’t easy for me, it was just possible.)
So, maybe I’m not so envious of those who lived and died before the internet. I’m not sure what kind of life I’d have had without it. Maybe I would’ve eventually come out of my shell and learned to be a normal person by interacting with normal people, but I just don’t know.
I drove to the store today, and I made one of those left turns where you have to wait for the light to turn red because there’s no break in the oncoming traffic. On the street corner, there was a woman in an orange safety vest wearing chunky gold hoop earrings, working some job, and dancing like no one could see her. Prince was on the radio, and I wondered if she was listening to the same song as me. If she was, I couldn’t blame her for dancing. If I wasn’t driving, I’d have probably done the same thing, well, maybe not quite, but I probably would’ve at least tapped my foot. A little further along, a man had just parked his car and was walking purposefully toward some destination. There was a a little pop-up restaurant on the sidewalk with a line of people leading up to it.
I made my turn and thought about that NYC street corner in the 1970s. I don’t live in New York, I live in Los Angeles, and whenever I’ve had the option, I’ve always chosen city life because of the things I mentioned above.
I could barely interact with people, but all the trouble was still worth it for me, just to be around them—to see them. There’s something so beautiful about seeing people living closely together; their lives completely different, but also echoing each other. It shows me what we have common, and tells me that, most of the time, we get along with each other just fine.