The Sidewalk Nursery

Sept. 18 1998 3:30 AM

The Sidewalk Nursery

The true comforts of a cell phone or Walkman may lie deeper than we think.

I am impressed by the variety of activities, in addition to walking, that I observe taking place on the sidewalks in my neighborhood. These activities seem to have increased a lot in, say, the last 40 years.

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I suppose I first became aware of this with the appearance of the Walkman. I saw more and more people walking around, or jogging, with earphones on. They were listening to something, apparently--probably music. More recently, I have been struck by the smoking. There were always people smoking on the sidewalk, but now there are clusters of people around the entrance to every office building, standing, talking to each other, and smoking cigarettes. Then came the cell phones--people walking around holding these little gadgets to an ear, apparently talking to someone. Finally, to this has been added the proliferation of sidewalk drinking. I don't mean drinking in the sense of taking in alcoholic beverages. These people are drinking coffee, soft drinks, or bottled water. Water, water, everywhere, being carried if not being drunk.

The smoking is easy to explain. Increasingly offices, even whole office buildings, ban smoking. So those who feel a great need to smoke go down to the sidewalk. What is harder for me to explain is the great number of women in these smoking groups. Do women have more of a need to smoke or less of a need to be in their offices, or are there just more women than men working in these buildings? Studies show that addiction to smoking is inversely related to income; low income people are more likely to smoke than high income people. Probably the women working in those buildings have lower incomes, on the average, than the men.

But how to explain the listening to music on the sidewalk, the talking on the telephone, the drinking of water? Of course, technology has a lot to do with it. Even in the case of water, the technology is important. If there weren't lightweight, unbreakable plastic bottles, there wouldn't be so much water drinking.

But these technological innovations would not have spread so far if they did not meet a demand. There must have been a strong desire to listen to music while walking or jogging on the sidewalk. Yet the reason for this desire is not clear. The people I see with their headphones on don't seem to be very happy about what they are hearing. Instead of listening to music, they could be looking at the other people on the sidewalk or mulling over private thoughts.

What are those people talking about on their cell phones? I have a cell phone that I take with me in my car, when I remember, in case I need roadside help. I have used it only a few times, to see if it was working. I have never walked along on the sidewalk with it held to my ear. Maybe all these people--mostly men, but I have seen a few women at it also--are calling their brokers to find out how rich they are or, more recently, how poor they are. I suppose the cell phone is part of the information revolution that holds great promise for us, but no one has ever demonstrated any addition to productivity resulting from the availability of cell phones.

Ihave been told that the use of water bottles has something to do with the cult of physical fitness. Physical fitness requires the intake of lots of fluids. But those fluids could be taken at home, from the kitchen faucet. Anyway, many of the people I observe do not look as if they were devoted to physical fitness. And still they hold on to their bottle.

Bottle! Bottle! Maybe that's the clue. These are people who do not want to give up their bottle--their nursing bottle. They want to remain in, or return to, their infancy, when the nursing bottle was the cure for all discomfort and anxiety. The water bottle is a surrogate for the nursing bottle, which was a surrogate for Mommy.

The cell phone fits into the same story. It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone. You may think you are checking on your portfolio, but deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cell phones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people. It is being alone that they cannot stand. And for many people, being alone really means being without Mommy. We are raising a generation that had radio transmitters in its nurseries, keeping Mommy constantly informed of every movement of the baby in his crib. We will soon be walking around with transmitters in our lapels or pocketbooks, constantly connected via satellite with Mommy. And for those whose mothers are no longer available there will be constant contact with the Bureau of Mommy Surrogates in the Department of Health and Human Services.

And what kind of music are those pedestrians and joggers listening to on their Walkmans? Music with a clear and steady beat, much like the lullabies that comforted them as infants.

So, it all fits. The Walkman, the cell phone, the water bottle are efforts to regain the warmth and comfort of infancy and find relief from the loneliness of adulthood. This need is surely not new. I remember the epigraph of James T. Farrell's book Studs Lonigan, which I read more than 60 years ago:

Alone and afraid,

In a world I never made.

Modern technology--the Walkman, the cell phone, and the plastic bottle--has given us new ways to try to deal with this old feeling. There are probably worse ways.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.

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