Feels like the future

In the gravel parking lot of a factory across a river in Nanchang a man paces. He walks along the concrete barrier that edges the space, one foot in front of the other. Beneath the bike canopy to his left a half dozen scooters are scattered, some electric some gas. The sun smothers the courtyard, pressing down the plumes of pollution so that they stick to his skin in the humidity. With one hand held to his ear in the familiar pose, the humidity and dirt do not bother him. He is not distracted by the trucks that rumble along the rough gravel road outside the factory’s gate, and the smell of the nearby bathrooms, their waterless troughs open to the sky, does not slow his conversation.

At a bus stop beneath an overpass in San Rafael a man waits. In his white hood and black jeans he leans against the structure’s thin plastic wall, one hand in his pocket the other cupping a distant voice to his ear. The bus is late and the morning fog limits visibility. He does not seem to mind, smiling into the shrouded distance, his eyes picturing some other place.

These two men do not know each other, and will never meet. Their conversations do not intersect, and yet would not surprise. They are both calling someone to be free of where they are, to pass the time waiting.

In the parking lot in China the man is waiting for a sample run to dry, for screens to finish printing, for a washer that he has filled by hand with hot water to cycle down.

In Marin the man waiting for the bus is on his way to work, to a job too far away, in a city he can’t afford to live in. The phone call to a friend already on the road distracts them both.

The future is coming, we tell each other, searching movie star filmographies on our phones in a bar. One day we’ll be able to send each other live videos of our cats as they try to sit in ever-smaller boxes. One day we’ll be able to read Chinese with our phone.

Listing off milestones of future connectivity, possible abilities, we forget the parts that are here, the parts that have already changed the world. They are no longer startling. Sitting in a conference room a song begins. The half dozen people seated at the table or on the floor do not move, they are not surprised at this strange music. One man, typing something, reaches a hand into his bag, his other hand continuing the words, and fishes out a phone.

“Hello,” he says. “I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”

We are no longer surprised to hear from people we can not see.

In China, in the heat of Nanchang, the man does not pace all day. He sits and talks to the factory owner, and then the man who mixes color for the prints. He works with the ayi who washes the clothes and has volunteered her machine for his testing. He hangs the samples on bushes to dry. Sent here alone, far from home and without a plan to return to it, he is not afraid, nor will he be forgotten. His phone keeps him connected to colleagues in Shanghai, to colleagues in Los Angeles.

We spend every day with abilities unimaginable two hundred years before. The future is coming, surely, with cows tracked by satellites rather than dogs and refrigerators that order Coors Light long before the last one is opened. Yet the future is here, too, with the voices of our friends from other continents, the answers to our questions from other time zones. Stepping off the plane in Salt Lake or in Texas we are no longer alone. Were we ever? Did we really drive miles to pay phones?

On his drive home years later, through the fog of Marin, he sees a man leaning against the bus stop, alone in the evening light. A lonely place to wait, the driver thinks, and then he sees the laugh, the hand holding phone to ear, and smiles.

The phone tucked in the center console rings.

“Hello,” says the man driving home in Marin.

“Hello,” says his mother, on a beach in Jamaica.

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.