Paul Greenberg

The first cell phone I ever saw -- though I had no idea what was going on at the time -- was in Florence not far from the Ponte Vecchio, the fabled old bridge across the Arno. It must have been an early spring morning in the 1980s along one of the arcaded streets that line the Piazza della Signoria.

One of the approaching crowd of pedestrians stood out: a stylish young man in the well-dressed Italian manner, tieless in a dark Armani suit, with his light tan overcoat slung over his shoulders as if carelessly, like a cape. So he wouldn't have to bother with putting his arms in the sleeves. He cut a fine figure -- una bella figura -- for he was the very picture of the premeditated casual in fashion.

Where the young man was going at such a brisk pace wasn't clear, but he could have come out of a fashion magazine. One strand of his dark straight hair was carefully out of place as he came toward me. He was talking in bursts. As if he had been set on the rapid-fire, full-auto mode of one of those sleek Italian submachine guns the Carabinieri favor.

But whom was he talking to? He seemed alone as he stared down at his hand, oblivious to oncoming traffic. If he hadn't been so stylish, he could have been taken for one of those delusional panhandlers that wandered Broadway back in my student days at Columbia.

Was he just another nutcase? Unlikely. Only later did someone explain he was using the latest thing: a small mobile phone. The gadget, called a cell phone, had come to Europe much earlier than to supposedly technologically advanced America. Europe, it turned out, wasn't just catching up, it was surpassing us.

Now, looking back, maybe I was right the first time. There is still something delusional about the busy, self-absorbed types hurrying along downtown streets and through suburban shopping malls and just about everywhere else as they talk and text and app and snap. All on their iPhones, tablets, smartphones or whatever is in vogue by the time this column makes the paper.

They're all supposed to be communicating with others but appear lost in themselves as others pass by unnoticed, and God's sky unfurls above without getting a glance from them.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.