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How to Die Alone

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-04-20


Since I don't fly that often, I never get truly annoyed or disillusioned by modern air travel in the way that most travelers do I mean, I know the food sucks and the compartments are cramped and the baggage fees are ridiculous; still, none of that really matters to me. Whenever I get to the airport I barely notice these inconveniences, for I am always so excited just to be taking the flight. For some reason the novelty of flying has never worn off for me; every time I fly I become 12 years old again, a kid traveling alone for the very first time, wide-eyed, ridiculously enthusiastic. Airports remain exotic places to me, super-sophisticated venues full of worldly, intrepid adventurers on their way to cool and inexplicable places.

I love killing time at the airport, that hour-or-so block that virtually every post 9/11 traveler has to negotiate before their flight. I usually hit the overpriced bookstore, find the Starbucks, wander around, pass slow-moving folks on the conveyor-belt-moving-walkway. I remember an old George Carlin bit about "playing Spy" at the airport: "You know there's at least one spy at the airport," he would say. "Your Job: Find him." So that's a part of killing time at the airport for me, too--playing spy.

The best part of being at the airport, though, is people-watching, the endless panoply of interesting faces and odd gestures that flick by you as you approach your gate. At my last visit to the airport, though, I must admit that the people-watching was so strange and unsettling that I might have to pass the time in a different way on my next flight. What happened was this: I was walking around the Delta gates at the Indy airport, looking at people, like I always do, trying to see a spark of something in someone's eye or a smile or a nod or a "good morning" . . . and I got nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was as if I was suddenly surrounded by people incapable of producing language. It took me a few moments to realize that I was literally the only person in Concourse B who even had his head up: everybody else was either staring at their cell phone, plugged into their computer, or head-bowed and locked onto some airport best-seller. It was precisely the case where not a single solitary soul was available for me to share the merest of social shrugs with. It felt odd to me, like an alien encounter: I couldn't believe that there wasn't at least one other person doing what I was doing. And yet there wasn't. Of the 800 or so people inhabiting the gated area, there was exactly one person who was looking to engage with anyone else. One.

I should point out that I'm not a creep and that I recognize what constitutes "personal space" in other people and that I'm very polite: I had no intention of bulldozing into someone's private zone while they were awaiting their flight. I simply wanted a tiny bit of interaction, a small shared experience, a nod, a smile. I wanted to experience the simple, civilized joy of talking to a complete stranger about the weather, the Cubs, the damned morning-rush-hour traffic. Nothing earthshaking, nothing important, just a casual reminder that I was indeed among fellow humans and not with a bunch of sinister, alien pod people.

But God knows, you can't budge people out of their preferred methods of isolation. Even in a public arena like an airport there's no longer such a thing as "public behavior" it's merely a congregation of 800 individuals locked onto their own private channels. I almost felt like a criminal for trying to break through to somebody, even for a second.

I know that I need to stop being surprised by all this. The drive toward isolationism in all phases of modern life is inexorable, and I shouldn't be shocked to see it on display at the airport. In 2012, it's very easy to shut everybody out, to push people away. In 2012, a full third of all U.S. households are inhabited by a single person. One out of every 10 Americans lives alone. And it's not just old-age widows and widowers who are responsible for the surge in the lone-inhabitants many young Americans are choosing to live alone as well. It's easier for them. Less aggravating. For those who can't stand to be around other people, for those who disdain marriage because they think that committing to one partner for life is something that only penguins or Lutherans should do, living by themselves is the only option. And it's quite possible, with gyms and iPods and take-out service and Facebook and internet shopping to go for virtually weeks without having to interact with another breathing human being.

You have to wonder, though, if all this freedom from entanglements really adds up to a happy person. Mental health experts have long warned depressed people about the dangers of isolation the weaker your connections are to other individuals or groups, the greater your chances are for prolonged mental illness and instability. And health studies in general seem to promote the idea that people who live alone don't fare nearly as well in health, happiness, or longevity as their counterparts. A famous case study outlined in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers focused on the curious lack of heart disease in a small Pennsylvania town, Roseto, in the mid-20th century. What the researchers discovered was that the communal, social layers of the town the fact that everyone knew everybody, that the families were close and three-generational (the town was virtually all Italian emigres), the fact that people constantly visited each other every day was the primary reason the people were so resistant to heart disease. In other words, the townspeople's connections with each other--their day-to-day interactions--was the key to their long-term health and happiness.

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