We stood in the hallway, my cousin and I, pulling off our woolly hats and unzipping layers of jacketry as he played me an argument he had recorded on the train with his iPhone. He had titled the file "subway argument," and that's just what it was: a man and woman screaming vulgarities at each other over the heads of other passengers. "I guess we're not in Ohio anymore." As he was exiting the train, he had glanced over at another passenger, another kid with another iPhone, and on its screen another sound file called "subway argument."
This is how we go about capturing the life around us now. Plastic and wires replacing the pencil and paper we once used to scribble down what we see happening around us before it dissipates, before the train moves on.
I was on the same train, but burying myself in Maile Meloy stories on my Kindle in a more peaceful car. War and Peace is on there too, even though I already own it in hardcover, since I promised some friends I'd read it with them in some sort of torturous pact, a Declaration for Literary Action in the new decade, and didn't trust myself to start lugging that thing on the subway. My pocket held another little device, full of Todd Rundgren and Big Star and NPR podcasts, silent for the time being, but the little nubs of the headphones dangling out of the pocket, constantly begging me to slip them into my ears and block out this crazy world of potential arguments.
These days I spend entire train rides rearranging wires and pressing buttons.
I wonder if I'd ever imagined that 2010 — which already sounds so futuristic when said out loud, automatically false and robotic, like you're talking through a fan, with set designs from Metropolis and costumes made of Lurex — would be a year of reading War and Peace on a souped up Etch-a-Sketch and listening to recorded arguments on a phone that is also a sketchpad and a dictionary and a watch and a stereo and a camera and a map and a box of games. I wonder if I ever thought I would be the person who owned these things that you command with a sweep of your finger, things that tell you the weather and also let you talk to your mother-in-law in snowy England while you're shading your eyes from the sun in a Mexican jungle. Sometimes these strange futuristic things tickle me when I think about them too hard, like I'm suddenly waking up into my own life from a long and restful coma.