February 22, 2014

Almost three years ago, Ms. J–yes, the same Ms. J who serves as my “food foil”–and I took a summer vacation. An unfinished essay about spaces grew out of the trip. Here it is, completed.

Lots of confined spaces. An apartment, just like all of the others in the 10-stack, next to other vertical rows with similar floor plans on either side. A hotel room, tight and small and, as it happens, in the most romantic hotel in America (the Spindrift Inn, in Monterey, CA), according to the 2011 TripAdvisor Travelers Choice Hotel Awards. (That’s what you sometimes get when you get your hotel through Priceline, when you are parked on a side street in Santa Barbara, CA and realize you need a place to stay in about 235 miles.) A car, small and quiet, that blazes through mile after mile of California countryside.

Lying awake in the romantic hotel–big, fluffy feather beds are wonderful–it occurred to me that we spend most of our time in small spaces, separated from others. To say Americans have become almost phobic about any action that places them in contact with others, especially strangers, overstates the case, but we certainly do value our privacy. We prize the corporate suite at the ballpark, which offers business hotel decor, mediocre food, and “away-ness” from the action on the field, along with the opportunity to avoid the riff-raff down below us. In all but the largest of cities, we look down our noses at public transportation, and if we’re “anybody” we have a car service, even in the biggest of cities. Private offices still represents the status quo and status, although economics have moved many companies toward open plans, with cubicles for everyone. And neighborhoods? Ms. J and I are offenders here, living in the same house for just shy of 23 years, seeing most of our neighbors no more often than once a year, at the mandatory Neighborhood Watch event.

Look, I appreciate my privacy! I’m not advocating for barracks rooms at hotels or toilets without stalls. Some of my best times, however, have been in  low-rent situations, engaged with others.

At the end of 1976 I took an AmeriPass trip from Chicago to Seattle, to Tucson, and back to Chicago. No compartment for this poor college student, and I had a great time! (My next train trip, when the family indulged me in May 2001 by going to Los Angeles by train, was a disaster, as we had a 14 hour delay on a 12 hour trip. Delay aside, the compartment represented success, I suppose, but sleeping in a seat would have been just fine, much less expensive, and more fun.)

In the summer of 2013 I attended a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park. By myself, I only planned to stay for a few innings, as I wanted my martini and a decent meal. Thinking I was getting a seat in the upper deck, I bought the cheapest bleacher seat on offer. Turns out I was sitting on a railroad tie, with an obstructed view, among a large number of financially-challenged families, most of whom did not speak English. I took several family pictures for people. (There’s nothing like “can I take a picture for you all” as a means for making someone’s day, and when you’re asking with your hands–Spanish and I never quite matched up–it works just fine.) I watched bags while people went for food. I craned my neck to watch the game. Etc. Lots more fun than I usually have at Petco. (Petco Park does not have an especially good vibe for baseball, and I’m not sure why.)

Spaces exist to provide privacy. Unfortunately, when they disconnect us from others, they may be providing a level of privacy we don’t need.


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