Archive for category: Barely Socially Acceptable

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 11

04 Mar 2007
March 4, 2007

I’d just run into Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader, on the street the day before. Stealing a few extra creative minutes on my commute to work, I had pulled out my Moleskin to pen a few notes about the encounter before my stop.

Along the way a man in his twenties entered the subway car, cell phone attached to his ear. He sat down in the empty seat next to me.

Geez, you sound like you’re having a friggin heart attack.
I’m just calling you back to say “I love you.”
Yeah, you too. Bye.

Without missing a beat I turned to a new page in my notebook and began to transcribe his one-way conversation. This seemed like such a natural transition. When you feel a story coming on you have to commit to it. No hesitation.

He rang another friend.

Hi. What are you laughing for?
Didn’t you see my name on the Caller ID?
Did you call Jeff?
You haven’t tried calling him have you?

At the sound of my name the hair on the back of my neck tickled, sending a lone shiver down my spine.

What’s that? Yeah.
I don’t know if it would have helped if I’d called him.
I could have played dumb.

I continued to record in full view. Every time he paused, I would pause. When he’d resume talking, I’d begin to write. The pattern was so transparent. Would he notice?

I imagined my detection as I continued to pen his every word. He was so close I could feel him exhale as ended each phrase. I kept my eyes cemented to my paper as if I was in my own world, not his. The tension was so taut I was fully awake now. It was an exhilarating sensation. Every day should start out like this.

He left me a message the other night.
Yeah, during the Oscars.
I hope not, but…
Hey, wait a minute, there’s a guy sitting right next to me writing down everything I say.
Hold on.

I would discretely close my notebook. But it would be too late. “What are you doing? he’d ask. People would look up from their newspapers to watch. Feeling the excitement build I’d turn to face him and reply: “I’m writing down everything you say. Did you think you were in a phone booth?”

Yeah, I’d take the honest and direct approach with just a hint of sarcasm. “Just think of me as your personal stenographer,” I’d add, hoping he could at least appreciate good customer service before he punched me.

Instead, he continued talking into his phone, totally oblivious to his scribe.

Yeah, I told you, he left me a message.
Who knows.
I’ve never seen him go into rescue mood before.

“Notice me. Catch me in the act!” I thought. I was poised for a real conversation. But at the next stop he got up, still talking into his mouthpiece as he left me.

Next time. Yes, maybe next time.

Related Stories: Past Acts at The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable.

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 10

14 Jul 2006
July 14, 2006

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

Summer in the City
The Lovin’ Spoonful

It’s turning out to be a typical Washington summer: hot and very humid. I know. Last night our air conditioning simply quit. No announcement; no nothing. One minute I was nice and comfy and the next my skin stopped breathing.

I knew what was coming. As the evening wore on I could feel myself getting more and more uncomfortable. When it gets this hot it’s torture and people say things they might not ordinarily say. But I kept my mouth sealed. I knew the consequences.

Today, on my subway commute home I was shocked (as always) but not surprised to hear a summertime cell phone blend of geopolitical chat mixed with obvious and loud amour from a middle aged bureaucrat sitting nearby. It takes a strong man not to break under these meteorological conditions. But the heat had done him in.

Forget about Homeland Security, Bahar. I had them review the discussion three times before they made the final decision. What a-holes!

You’ve got an Iranian passport and a US one. You’ve got to get rid of the Iranian one if you ever hope of getting a job at DHS.

It’s hard to believe Washington, DC is the “Spy Capital of the World.” With this weather how can people keep anything to themselves? State secrets? Covert government policy? Cell phone conversations? Walk a mile (or ride rapid transit) in this humidity with your fellow citizens and you can gather all sorts of interesting “intelligence.” Wasn’t it three years ago today Robert Novak spilled the beans on Valerie Plame? A very humid day, if memory serves me. Spies take note: this is low hanging fruit.

In this post 9/11 environment the Axis of Evil speaks volumes. Are you loyal to the US or Iran? What happens when your parents get abducted in Tehran? Next time, renounce your Iranian citizenship.

The woman sitting next to me turned to the rest of us and announced: “Why he must think he’s still in his office. But he forgot his ‘Cone of Silence!’ Talk about leaks.”

Oh I miss you. I miss you honey. God damn it! But we’ve got to move on. They found the excuse, Bahar.

There’s nothing more I can say. You’ve gotta move on.

I miss you.

Keep cool and keep quiet.

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 9

24 Feb 2006
February 24, 2006

You can’t hear me? I CAN HEAR YOU!
Yes I can.
Brenda, I am on the subway. I can’t be doing that!

When people make public spectacles of themselves I get embarrassed. Why me? Watching a scorned lover let her philanderer have it on the Jerry Springer Show immediately causes my hands to cover my eyes. I must protect myself and this is my instinctive automatic response. Hands to ears would be better but my body doesn’t always listen to me.

I could turn off the TV, but of course I don’t. There is something visceral about open displays like this. Schadenfraude.

They mailed the final papers to him today.
If you hang up on me you are going to regret…

it, Brenda. Big time.

There’s no turning it off in the subway. Despite our clearly marked destinations, we often get lost in our own worlds. We are oblivious and completely devoid of embarrassment. My hands rest naturally and comfortably on my lap.

Related Stories: Past Acts at The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 8

18 Dec 2005
December 18, 2005

Amber, this is Glenn
I’m in the Metro on my way in
I need an email to go out


An early morning snow had forced the federal government to open two hours late. The respite from AM bureaucracy did not prevent countless worker bees from their appointed tasks. Conference calls from home circumvented any disconnect Mother Nature could hand out. Workflow could not and would not be stopped by a mere three inch layer of slush.

Subject line: “Update from Glenn”
No, make that “Good news from Glenn”
Yes, good news.

I slowly reached for my notebook and pen while we waited for the next train. Good news in the midst of this bleak arctic mess should be acknowledged. But I didn’t want to interrupt his stream of consciousness. A professional cellphone documentarian realizes the critical importance of camouflage.

Start with “Glenn asked that I let you know
the following per this morning’s 8:30 discussion:
Good news!”

“The template will be ready on time.
But action is needed by MLS immediately
to approve these template reports.
Catherine will have the lead on this.”

Make sure she gets an advance copy.
I want her prepared.

I shifted my posture to maintain my stealth, turning just a bit away from him. The rustle of nearby newspapers and the bass hum from a pair of earbuds on the other side of me made his dictation less distinct. Human evolution had not smiled kindly on eavesdropping.

“The system will be able to produce biannual reports
by the meeting in Dallas”

Make that “by the meeting in Denver.”
That gives us a bit more time.

Read it back to me.

No, change that back to Dallas.
Jim will be all over us if we don’t produce.
I don’t want his hands on this thing.

Glenn looked up from his notes and turned slightly away from me. The platform lights began flashing, announcing the arrival of our train. He stood up. I stood up. He went to the first door in the train and I followed with as much nonchalance as any commuter could muster.

Type it up and send it out immediately.
I want to get this off
before anyone has a chance to react.

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The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 7

20 Nov 2005
November 20, 2005

Hi Nick. This is your lawyer.
Your lawyer, Bob.
Yes, that’s right. Your lawyer.

Washington is a town of lawyers. They’re everywhere and into everything. Their influence is clearly visible throughout the DC area. Button-down blue Oxford dress shirts are our version of high fashion. Their power lunches and show-stopping courtroom antics are de rigueur. And a lawyer’s cell phone is indeed his best friend, at least when it comes to billable hours.

So why was I surprised yesterday when I walked into my doctor’s waiting room to hear someone talking loudly into his phone? As I waited to see my doctor I was regaled with a cross between improvisational comedy and existential drama.

We’ve got a court case coming up next week don’t we.

Yes, that’s right. We’ve got to subpoena those two witnesses.

I turned to my fellow waitees looking to commiserate. Bob was loud and like most who headline at the Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable he assumed this venue was his own private office. I was riveted to my seat while I nonchalantly reached for my pen and Moleskin. I did not want to disturb the performance in progress. But it had to be documented.

Bill was playing to a serious audience. The man who had come in just before me was arranging for a colonoscopy. It had been years since his last test. He looked closely at the referral the receptionist had given him. He had other things on his mind.

I looked closely at my fingers. A few weeks before they’d suddenly started to swell and itch. I’d had six episodes since then. Each had lasted only 30 minutes and I was combing my brain, trying to remember what preceded each outbreak. I was involved in my own process of discovery. Maybe if Bob were my lawyer he’d be able to figure it out.

The witnesses will verify your whereabouts on the night in question.

There must be witnesses in my case he could subpoena.

This isn’t front page news, Nick.
You don’t have to protect them.

The teenager directly across from me was hunched over in his seat, the mark of The Bored. Clearly he didn’t want to be there either. I stared at him, hoping my mental powers would force him to look up and connect with me. Surely he was noticing Mr. Attorney’s expert elocution. Looking down at his own fingers, he suddenly smiled.

No, they aren’t your sources.
This is for YOUR benefit.
Do you want to go to jail?

The staff continued their busy work: retrieving charts, billing, and making phone calls to those who had planned to occupy these seats for tomorrow’s performance. The receptionists ignored Bob’s crafty office work. They had their own to attend to.

The backstage door opened and a nurse entered stage left. “Mr. Lyons, the doctor will see you now.”

Nick, I’ve got to run.
Please call my secretary with the contact info for your witnesses.
Without them you’re toast.

As I stood up to give him a standing ovation, suddenly my fingers started to swell. And really itch.

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The Sociology of Close Contact Technology:
Taking Back Your Public Space

11 Dec 2004
December 11, 2004
The Society for Handheld Hushing

Download these handy dandy cards,
perfect for any overbearing cell phone interaction

I am a voyeur. To be a good artist you must be willing to observe and listen. It’s not hard when you take public transportation every day. As an art career move, my transportation from the isolation of LA freeway driving to the close contact of DC’s subway has been a boon to my artmaking. Hence the creation of The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable.

As an artist I am stealth. When I hear fellow commuters’ private yet very public cell phone conversations, I surreptitiously reach for my Moleskin notebook to take notes. My interaction comes only when I actually perform my monodialogs on the train.

However, if you are bothered/overwhelmed/disgusted by loud cell conversations in your adjacent vicinity and want to proactively do something about it, right then and there, Heidi Coudal, Jim Coudal, and Aaron Draplin have teamed together to provide you the way. Join SHHH, The Society for Handheld Hushing. Download this convenient PDF file of handy cards, perfect for handing over to any overbearing mobile phone user.

The project is reminiscent of conceptual artist’s Adrian Piper’s 1980s impromptu performance pieces in bars and other public venues. Using one of her Calling Cards Piper, a light-skinned African-American, would hand them to people who had just made a racist remark. Another was handed out to men in bars who assumed she was “available” simply because she was alone.

So when the opportunity arises, let your fellow travelers know they’ve breached the limits of proper 21st century etiquette. Don’t just roll your eyes while attempting to read your newspaper in angry silence. Take back your public space.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074