POCATELLO, ID – A while back, I watched a British television series in which the main characters met up at a neighborhood pub. After drinks around were poured, someone put money in the Juke box, and soon everyone in the pub was singing along. The atmosphere was convivial, jolly. Complete families, all ages, were present and enjoying themselves.
Americans don’t do that.
Instead, we isolate each other into age groups believing pubs aren’t fit places for families, a remnant of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union days. And so alone, we “adults” sit glumly nursing our beers staring blankly at each other or at the silent television sets surrounding the room while the Juke box plays unfamiliar tunes so loudly nobody can hear themselves think much less actually talk.
In America music is stratified according to age groups, so mixed age groups don’t know each others’ songs well enough to sing along, and new songs pound the airwaves and iPods continually, rarely long enough for audiences to learn the words, but Americans wouldn’t sing along in a pub anyway. Out west the men are strong and silent, and singing along would be embarrassing, especially with women present.
When did we all stop talking to each other? It happened before smart phones ran away with our voices. It seemed to happen when owners of bars and pubs decided multiple television sets were a good idea, each one turned to a different sports event to keep the clientele informed of the stats.
I’ve never known a “good” idea that didn’t backfire in some way.
A few years ago, on a dull afternoon, I dropped in at the old Wagon Wheel pub south of town. Televisions had only recently been introduced there; the regulars sat quietly feigning interest in the silent TVs and game scores while music nobody knew the words to blared out of the Juke box. The bartender silently washed glasses behind the bar and glanced about the room like a cornered cat.
Those of us seated at the bar ordered drinks and food with sign language. Those seated at tables who tried talking had to shout above the noise adding an even greater cacophony to the room.
All the electronic gadgets hummed along creating a barrier between customers as profound as office cubicles. We put our elbows on the bar, nibbled our french fries, sipped our beers, looking and feeling horrifically bored.
It should have been obvious to anyone entering that this motley crew had come to the pub for companionship, to fill some empty hours that weren’t being satisfied by our own TV sets or empty houses. Unfortunately, the pub wasn’t fulfilling its promise.
Then the miracle happened. The power went out; the room darkened a bit, and a lovely quiet descended upon us like a gentle rain after a long hot drought.
It didn’t take long for conversation to fill the void. It began with speculation about the outage and moved on to the weather, then pleasantries involving family and friends, and finally a bit of politics. The murmur of discussion was human and pleasant. No one had to shout to make themselves heard. We actually smiled contentedly.
At last, at least this once, the pub had fulfilled its promise in my Private Pocatello.