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Thursday, January 21, 2010


Looking a gift horse in the mouth

After Burning Man last summer I found myself on my own in San Francisco for a few days. A few friends recommended a small pub called the Black Horse in the Marina District near where I was staying. I wandered up to Union Street in search of the place one night around ten and walked right past it. The Black Horse is incredibly small, roughly the size of a walk-in freezer, with only twelve bar stools for patrons.

Typically in situations like this, I take a seat in the corner, break out my iPhone and immediately delve into my own little world of Twitter and Facebook. No sooner had I hit icon for Echofon when I started getting glares from the other three people in the tiny pub. The wide-eyed blond working the bar came over and pointed to a framed list on the wall. The Black Horse is a drinking establishment with rules, you see, one of which is "no cell phones."

I'd been warned about this list but I didn't think anyone would actually enforce it. The bartender explained. At the Black Horse, the proprietor came up with these rules to facilitate conversation between customers and keep a level of camaraderie and good cheer going during business hours. I was skeptical but, moments later, I found myself delving into a conversation with a group of locals that would go on for the next few hours. Months later, I can still remember what we talked about. High rents, the creative class, the negative effects of Coldplay, relationship troubles and how summer in San Francisco doesn't really get going until after Labor Day.

I spent a few evenings at the Black Horse, and no doubt due to the rules, I found myself talking to a good number of fellow patrons. My favorites: a guy who looked like Bob Saget, drunk and/or coked-up, who was eager to discuss 9/11 conspiracy theories and an advertising guru with a passion for organic farming. The later spends his vacation days volunteering on a friend's farm in Oregon. He asked me to say hi to the owners of the Minto Island Growers, an operation down in Salem, if I ever run into them at a farmers market around Portland. I don't know if that'll ever happen so I'll post a shout-out to them here. If you folks are out there reading this, Harris says, "howdy."

And now that I think about, that other guy probably *was* Bob Saget.

I've battled shyness all of my life and certain social situations can be the equivalent of jumping into a hot tub filled with piranhas. Of course, having an iPhone around to serve as an escape route doesn't help matters. Yesterday I was in class. When the professor asked us to break into small groups to discuss the documentary we'd just seen, I broke out my phone and more or less hid-out until the lecture resumed. Thankfully, class participation isn't part of my grade for this course.

I'm not proud of this, by any means, but I'm not alone. On Monday, San Francisco Weekly tackled this topic and the article quotes a psychology professor who claims that smart phones are further fueling shyness in the states. I guess there's an argument to be made for that and even the author admits that she pretends to text in order to get out of awkward social situations.

Still, I'd say that more good than harm has come from smart phones and "structured electronic interactions." Sites like Facebook have put me in touch with people I would never talk to otherwise. Without Twitter, I would never have had the opportunity to argue with Oregonian critic Shawn Levy about Avatar, itself a movie about individuals who, more or less, use technology to meet people. Or, more specifically, 12-foot tall Thundercats.

Here in Portland, anyone sitting by themselves in a bar or a restaurant typically has a phone in their hands. I wonder if the Black Horse's policies could fly in a small pub along Alberta or Hawthorne. Maybe so...





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