I lived above Caffe Pergolesi in Santa Cruz for a couple years in college. Pergs, as we called it, was housed in an 1886 Victorian that had a wrap-around porch, where people would sit around all day smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. For a group of 20-year-old guys, there was no better place to live in the world.
This was around 2001, and not many people had cellphones, so friends and acquaintances who were studying downstairs or walking by would just drop in for a bongload or a beer. My roommates and I shared a landline, an answering machine and a whiteboard for messages in case one of us answered a call for someone who wasn’t home.
Back then, when the phone rang, you just answered it without knowing who was on the other end. Even that little mystery has been killed by modernity. In fact, that might be the issue, the reason I’ve been feeling this sense of existential malaise: In a time when you have the power to answer any question that’s ever been answerable, is there any room left for mystery?
Somebody, somewhere, made up a term for people like me. It’s Xennial, and we occupy the gap between Generation X and Millennials.
I’m old enough to have been an active and cognizant participant in culture before smartphones and social media, yet I’m young enough to have been able to seamlessly integrate the technology into my everyday life with no learning curve. To put it in simpler terms: I’m old enough to remember where I was when I learned Kurt Cobain swallowed his shotgun, but I’m young enough to have taught my parents how to use Facebook.
It’s a weird place to be because, honestly, as I try to write amongst the never-ending onslaught of incoming emails, tweets, Facebook likes, Instagram comments and text messages, all I can do is romanticize a simpler time. It feels like all this technology is ruining our ability to be people. Even former Facebook executives have admitted social media is destroying society, and it’s no secret that it’s ruining critical thinking and the ability to use reason and facts.
Bullshit conspiracy theories are being earnestly considered by people we thought were more grounded. Actual fake news — not the things Donny whines about when someone disagrees with him, but purposeful misinformation used to sway opinions — has spread like VD. In the very near future, anyone with a computer and editing software will be able to manipulate video to look and sound the way they want.
So yeah, I’m hella nostalgic for earlier times. Even if life wasn’t simpler, it was at least less cluttered.
There’s a certain amount of irony in my feelings about the internet, considering I make my living using it; my website publishes digital articles and distributes them through social media. But I’m just using the tools I have at my disposal. I never grew up wanting to run a digital media brand. I just wanted to make things that moved people. Unfortunately, this is the easiest way.
I remember getting my first smartphone in 2008. It was a Blackberry, and I was so excited that I’d be able to take care of emails on the go. I was researching my book, “Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in New York,” at the time and was on the go all day and night. The idea of being able to handle things without being in front of the computer seemed amazing.
At this point, I would give it all back. In exchange for being able to answer emails from wherever, we traded our ability to be unreachable. And being unreachable is when the veil between everyday life and the magic and the mystery of saying “why not” is the thinnest.
It’s hard to get lost in spontaneity when your constantly updating what you’re doing and looking at what others are doing as well. Hell, it’s hard to get lost in general these days. And if it’s impossible to get lost, then what mystery is there left in the world?
R.I.P. Caffe Pergolesi
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.