It was meant to be romantic, a rare few hours without the kids. We chose a quaint local café, and as we walked there feeling the first vestiges of fall, we felt connected. Outside of the chaotic spillage of toys and noise, we'd be able to relocate each other.
But I was wrong.
I hadn't realized that we'd have an intruder -- a rash of unexpected, uninvited company. I hadn't realized there would be not one, but two flat screen televisions joining us.
I'm not obtuse or oblivious to the role that TVs can play. In airports while waiting for interminably delayed or cancelled flights, it's often essential to have the bright gab and glare both to calm and distract from the frustration of being in limbo. Even when the wait is much shorter, such as standing in line for an espresso, the suspended television often makes the indecision of the person at the counter more bearable. At the Department of Motor Vehicles and at the pediatrician's office, the mounted televisions function to placate the impatient, soothe the nervous; they serve a purpose.
But at restaurants?
Instead of engaging in a meaningful exchange about our careers, our marriage, our overbooked lives, we peered blankly at a minor college basketball game. Neither one of us follows college sports in general or basketball in particular. Yet there we were transfixed to the accumulating fouls as the sweaty players dribbled up and down the court. Mounted on opposing walls of the otherwise quaint café, there was nowhere else to look but at the televisions. Despite our best efforts to focus on each other, the orange and black jerseys hurling past ensnared us in their rebounds.
Who really needs to pay ten dollars for salad, twenty dollars for pasta, and five dollars for coffee in order to watch TV? It's a lot cheaper to do that at home, plus at home there's the added bonus of being able to turn the channel to a station you actually like. I began to wonder who the TVs were really serving? Was it the wait staff, providing welcome relief from finicky customers and dull downtimes? But it didn't seem right. Even during off-hours, waiters hardly ever are stationery long enough to immerse themselves in a game. And then I realized that they had to be meant for the customers. But it still didn't seem right. It's understood that if one wants to head to a public place to watch TV and eat and drink, an endless array of sports bars from high end to low end exist to fill that niche. It's also understood that if one doesn't want to watch TV and still eat and drink in a public place, sports bars should be avoided. This understanding satisfies both sports fans and non sports fans alike.
But then why did TVs seep out of those well-defined peripheries and spread onto walls in bistros, cafes, osterias, and diners? And is anyone happy about it? Could it be that we are so programmed into receiving constant stimulation, visual sensory overload, that to be without high definition mega-pixels for the length of consuming a soup and sandwich, we'd go into withdrawal? Or, could it be that a societal decision has been made that there's really nothing left to talk about amongst ourselves, and that it's better to have someone do the talking for us? Either way, it's pretty sad and doesn't make for a communicative night out.
Staring at the referee flagging another foul, our last attempts to communicate had meaningfully ended at half time. As the clock countdown the last minutes of the game, I hadn't noticed that my Panini had gone cold and the foam on the cappuccino had withered away. I was too caught up in the wild waving of arms, blocking, distracting. We'd pay the bill, leave a generous tip, but we'd never return. The next time we hire a babysitter and attempt an evening to reconnect, we'd have to phone ahead, not to inquire about daily specials or reservations, but to ask if it was clear of flat screens.