[Originally sent out to my brilliant mailing list, to which dozens of people are subscribers.]
I snuck out for lunch the other day and grabbed pizza at a new favorite brick oven spot in Harajuku which happened to be silently projecting Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes on the back wall of the restaurant. (Unrelated, his upcoming film might be the best thing in cinematic history) It’s minimal black and white scenes making for a nice backdrop to the minimal black and white design of the dining room, though I don’t know if that was intentional. If you haven’t seen it and you enjoy people analyzing the subtleties of simple conversations then it’s worth adding to your watch list. I love it, but I can also sit and watch people all day long. It had been a while, but as it played silently I started remembering how fantastic some of the scenes are and decided to rewatch again soon.
Soon turned out to be last night. Michael Booth from the Denver Post originally wrote that “At least three of the spots make the hour and a half worthwhile through an addicting blend of hilarity and beauty” and before last night I would have agreed with that. The movie is made up of these short vignettes, conversations between 2 or 3 people that are completely unconnected, but begin to reference each other as they go. It’s hard to tell what is improvised and what is scripted, and if the actors are playing themselves or characters of themselves. Before I would have said it was worth watching just for the Iggy Pop & Tom Waits, and the Bill Murry & RZA & GZA scenes alone but something else struck me during this viewing.
In the episode entitled ‘No Problem’ Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé play a pair of old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time, but are meeting up because apparently Alex called Isaach out of the blue recently asking to talk. Isaach expresses how happy he was to hear from his old friend Alex and the two agree it’s wonderful to see each other. Isaach then asks his old and obviously dear friend what the problem is, assuming that must have been the impetus for the call. Alex says there is not a problem leading Isaach to question why his friend can’t trust him with whatever the problem must be. This goes back and forth a bit, Isaach obviously cares for his friend and is visibly hurt by the silence, and Alex seems put off by the questioning leading to awkwardness that extends until Isaach decides to take off, leaving the invitation to confide in him open. This is a really long way to getting at the point – there is a notion here that is more powerful than immediately recognizable. The idea that we all have these friends, best friends, who we can not talk to for years and still consider them to be friends. People who we wouldn’t hesitate to call if we had a problem and would expect the same from them, but in practice don’t even call otherwise.
And why not? Especially as adults the important interactions become fewer and farther between. Somewhere along the way catch up calls became text messages and social media likes.
I started wondering why that is. When I think of my very favorite people on this planet, I’ve actually spoken with very few of them in recent memory. Some I’ve interacted with online, liked a photo they posted or made a quick joke in an ongoing group email thread, but we haven’t really talked. Sure, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of my very best friends while traveling through their cities but that requires planning and effort, and it’s the exception, not the norm. Living on the other side of the world now only makes that separation feel deeper, the distance that much more tangible.
“These days the people I love are spread so far apart. All out of reach.” – Ache, Jawbreaker
When I was younger, as I imagine many of you will remember, long distance calls were expensive and you had to hack pay phones to have any kind of meaningful chats with friends anywhere outside of your city. I still clearly remember the hours I spent at payphones when I lived in Florida talking with my friend Sean McCabe who lived in Philly at the time. I’d sit outside for 3-4 hours in a stretch. Talking about nothing really, but it meant everything. This was circa ‘95 and while we’d become friends online, when we wanted to talk we still picked up the phone.
And here we are all these years later with a million essentially free ways to video chat and I can’t remember when the last time I had a call with a friend without a specific preplanned purpose. When I think of the last people that I’ve had calls with who aren’t right in my physical vicinity it’s 90% work, 10% family and nothing else. Meanwhile I watch my 9yo son spend every second he can on the weekends FaceTiming with his friends in the US and Europe – time zones be damned. They play video games and watch YouTube on one screen and have another propped up with video just to hang out with each other. He doesn’t realize it now but these are precious, beautiful interactions that at 9 I couldn’t have even imagined having. At that age I was excited to steal 5-10 minutes on the phone with a friend from school, not much more was allowed because those were the days before call waiting and tying up the home line for any extended period of time was not cool.
So it’s easier than ever now, and yet I feel more out of touch than ever as well. I don’t think I’m the only one. One of my standout memories from the last few decades is a call a received from a friend out of the blue for no reason, just to say hi. This is stand out because it’s one of the only times post 2000 that I can ever remember it happening. But why? Are we so busy that we can’t spare a few minutes to reach out to people we love? Are we so stressed that the idea of trying to schedule something is monumental and the mere idea of calling out of the blue unsolicited feels monstrously rude? But maybe we need to be monsters if that’s the case. Scheduling a call for next week seems like it requires a purpose. An out of the blue call today, right now seems like it needs an urgent problem. But maybe the problem is that we haven’t talked recently and that urgently needs to be resolved.
I guess I strive to be both Alex and Isaach, from their own perspectives. I want to be there for my friends if they need me, and I want to be comfortable just calling them out of the blue for no reason. I’m better at the first thing than the latter, but I could be better at both. We probably all could.