Hey, Buddy, Look Up

A while back, I was walking to work and heard someone yell, “Hey, buddy! Look up!”

My first reaction was to ignore it and continue on my way. People yell out non sequiturs at each other in the city all the time. I thought maybe he was telling me to turn toward God. Wouldn’t be the first time a stranger expressed concern for my soul. Then I heard brakes squeal behind me,  a long car horn, and more shouting. I turned to see a woman—mid-40s and wearing scrubs— clutching her steering wheel in a stopped car.

“Do you have a death wish?” She yelled at a man standing at the curb holding a cell phone. Another woman sat between them in the car’s passenger seat. Apparently the man hadn’t noticed he had walked into traffic because he was occupied with his phone. Aside from the passenger plugging her ears, nobody looked hurt. “How about you keep that phone in your pocket when you’re walking around town because it’s apparent to me that you can’t stare at that thing and avoid getting killed at the same time.” [Writer’s note: I’ve deleted many, many swear words.]

“Sorry,” he muttered and looked back down. I could tell he was embarrassed and trying to avoid looking at the driver, but the fact that he went right back to doing the offending act just ticked her off more.

“I’m so tired of you people making the rest of us responsible for your safety because you can’t be bothered to watch where you’re going. You’re like a 4-year-old walking down the street expecting other people to make sure you don’t get hurt. Should we put some Huggies on you too so you don’t have to stop watching that thing to go to the bathroom?” That’s as far as she got before the car behind her honked. The light turned green. She continued haranguing him as she swerved away from the curb and down the street.

What she said to him made me happy. It put a picture in my mind of grown men and women walking around town with their eyes stuck to their cell phones wearing extra-puffy-at-the-top slacks and being followed by people yelling out instructions you’d usually only hear a parent tell a toddler. Tie your shoelaces before you trip. Don’t run into that lightpost. Stop at this crosswalk and wait for me to hold your hand.

I used to get really mad at people who walked around town with their faces in their phones. But I’ve since adopted saying “Hey, buddy! Look up!” whenever I encounter it. Mostly I say it to people who take a few steps out of the subway station, stop in the middle of the sidewalk, and start tapping away on their iPhones. This habit annoys me because I’m walking past the station—not into it—and they are obliviously standing right in my way. After I tell them to look up, they mumble their sorry and step into an even more annoying spot. That’s when I hear the voice of that angry woman in my head and surprisingly, I soften.

At the risk of sounding like a self righteous jerk, I admit that I soften because I picture them as toddlers. It’s an inside joke with positive effects: I don’t yell and they are politely informed that they are not paying attention. I say, “Be careful with that thing, huh?” as tenderly as I can. The concern in my voice makes them detach from the screen for a moment to look at me. I smile and continue on my way.