Selfies

Paul Greenberg

1/28/2014 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Lost in a world I never made, I'm still just as mystified as I was that day in Florence. The young man I saw is probably entering a proper and prosperous middle-aged life by now, fortified by pasta and his growing family and waistline. And still talking/texting/snapping like mad. Modern Times, it's called. And has been since Charlie Chaplin made the movie by that name sometime in the Thirties, and gave it a frenetic pace that anticipated our own, when we're all in a great hurry to get nowhere in particular. We may not know where we're going, but we're making great time. Like the RMS Titanic.

The word of the year in 2013, which is already the past, was selfie. Which has come to mean since its origin as a buzzword in Australian social media a self-taken photograph via iPhone or similar gadget. That's according to the Oxford Dictionaries, which keeps track of these verbal infelicities. On its shortlist this year were runners-up like binge-watch, v., and Bitcoin, n., which also have the fraudulent sound of these times about them: artificial, wasteful, self-delusional ... anything to avoid having to come to grips either with others or reality. Solitude, what's that? Clearly an archaic concept of some sort.

Naturally enough, the most notorious selfie of the year in 2013 starred our selfie-in-chief. What made it notorious was that it was taken at a memorial service -- Nelson Mandela's. It showed the president posing with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Not shown were the Dearly Departed, who doubtless had another engagement at the time, and the First Lady.

Photos of the photo were soon circulating everywhere on the World Wide Web, and they featured Mrs. Obama looking on with an expression that might be summed up in the words of Her Majesty Victoria at the turn of another century: "We are not amused."

No one may know what's going on in his own marriage, let alone that of others, but our First Lady has my entire sympathy. It can't be easy being married to someone who is so clearly in love with himself.

Now, Gentle Reader, if you'll just hold that pose....