Monday, March 26th, 2007
Marshall Poe is a dream writer for those of us obsessed with sharing stories online. His recent Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Hive,” addresses Wikipedia as history’s biggest collaborative knowledge experiment. He’s currently writing a book about mass collaboration on the Internet and maintains the fantastic memoryarchive.org.
Below, Poe explores the conflation of public and private worlds—off the Internet—through the glittering prism of that American icon, the diamond ring.
I OFTEN GO TO PUBLIC PLACES to catch a moment of privacy. I imagine I’m not alone here. In a public, people usually observe conventions—keep it clean, quite and private—that permit everyone to enjoy a bit of me-time. What would become of privacy if people actually talked to strangers, the way sociologists say we should?
But sometimes you just can’t keep the public and private separated the way you’d like.
On a cold December day several years ago I had fled my family and repaired to the most anonymous place imaginable in holiday-season New York—the Starbucks in the Empire State Building. It was humming, packed with tourists who didn’t know one another and didn’t care to. I had a book on seventeenth-century Russia to edit, a bit of mindless work, and this seemed like the perfect locale to do it in peace and quiet.
I sat in one of those big comfy chairs. Almost immediately a couple sat down at an adjoining table. She was in her early 20s and pretty after a collegiate fashion. He was about the same age, athletic and quite handsome. They made a nice looking pair. We were so close that we formed a kind of triangle. I could hear every word they said, even the most hushed. The intrusion was unwelcome, but I couldn’t very well move, as there were no open seats.
It was apparent after only a few seconds that they were reuniting after a semester apart. Both had been away to college. They spoke blandly about school. He had taken this or that class, been here or there, and talked to him or her. She had done the same, only on another campus. The conversation was banal, and I tried my best to ignore it and return to ancient Russia. My editing and their discussion, however, were commingled in a kind of dreadful blank verse.
“…Aleksandr Ivanovich Dolgorukov was made boyar in July of 1647, just before…”
“…I know what you mean about Jimmy. He can be a bit of a drag, especially…”
“…the Tsar’s Council, under the leadership of Morozov, convened in special…”
“…the Goo Goo Dolls? No, I didn’t make it to the show because…”
And so it went, back and forth between the lives of old Russian nobles and those of modern American college students.
I was getting dizzy and thinking I should leave when he said, “It’s not too late, I really thought we could make it…” Every American my age will recognize this as a close paraphrase of a famously catchy Carole King lyric:
And it’s too late baby, now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it
I couldn’t fake it either. My editing was over, but I was staying put. What would be next, I thought, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain?”
I listened attentively. He slowly moved the conversation to love. The topic was clearly making her uncomfortable. She was trying her best to ease him down. More tropes out of the AM book of love songs followed. Yes, she loved him, but she just wasn’t sure. No, she didn’t want to hurt him. Of course, she had feelings for him.
And then it happened. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box, the sort of little cube a man hopes to deploy only once in his life. She gasped audibly and put her hand to her mouth. He then stood up and immediately went back down on bended knee. He was not more than two feet from me when he said, in a quavering voice.
“Will you marry me?”
Silence. This time, a bit louder.
“Please, will you marry me?”
Silence. This time at the top of his voice.
“I love you and want you to marry me!”
Begging him to get up, she began crying. I felt a little moved myself.
Apparently, so did everyone else in the café. The crowd went dead silent. No more skim-milk lattes were made, no more Sumatra was ground, and no more office gossip was traded. In the blink of an eye we alone-in-a-crowd urbanites were transported from our private worlds into a public drama. This was theater, they were the actors, and we were the audience. Happily for the production (if not for her), he would not relent. The show went on.
“I love you and want you to marry me,” he shouted.
All of a sudden, a Greek chorus emerged from the audience. First one brave soul shouted “Say yes!” Then another, then another, then another until the entire Starbucks was chanting, in unison, “Say yes! Say yes! Say yes!”
It’s easy to understand why we, total strangers, would offer advice on the course of this couple’s life. The script said we should. The entire scene was, after all, pure Hollywood. The Way We Were. Love Story. When Harry Met Sally. Sleepless in Seattle. This was the way life was supposed to be. You fall in love. You have a whirlwind romance. There are problems. It looks like you’re not going to make it. And then, out of the clear blue, you and your soul mate find eternal happiness together! All that was missing was a film crew.
It arrived shortly. A family of four—mom, dad, two daughters—walked into the café and immediately saw that something was going on. The father began talking excitedly in French about something he’d just purchased. He had it in a little leather bag. He reached into the satchel and pulled out, yes, a digital video camera. The Frenchman immediately commenced filming the couple in their most private moment. Or was it their most public moment? I wasn’t sure, but the image of the little red light blinking atop the camera while this young man bared his soul, his beloved sobbed in terror, and the coffee-drinking masses played the scene is one I won’t forget.
Alas, things weren’t working out for those hoping that life would imitate art. She wasn’t following the script. In fact, she was blowing her lines right and left. Instead of “Yes, of course I’ll marry you,” she was throwing the chorus angry looks and crying ample tears. She pled with her suitor to get up and stop proclaiming his love. The chorus urged her on with renewed ardor. “Say yes! Say yes! Say yes!” He was hoping against hope that she would come around. She wouldn’t.
And then it was over. He slumped into his chair with a hangdog expression written across his face. She, still crying, looked as if her life was over. The box sat unattended and unwanted atop the table. The chorus sighed and everyone returned to their business. The accidental French camera crew went to order espressos. I went back to editing my book, alone again with everyone else.