This is simply a retelling one of those moments in life where you become aware of something and have an urge to take a specific action. The trouble is that the action you want to take is one of those that you normally only see in a scene from a film, which always either ends well for the hero of that scene, or, by design, feeds the story along in a specific way for a specific purpose. How many times have we all seen or witnessed something and wanted to be the one who intervened in an ‘I’m Spartacus’ attention-demanding way? How many times have we afterwards said to people who experienced the same thing “I was going to say this” or “I was going to do that” only to have them reply “me too!” and yet none of us did. Trouble is, it takes some serious balls to that, but even that’s not really the problem. It’s more a question of doubt – could the action create more problems that it solves? Could it perceived incorrectly and therefore have the wrong motives assigned? What if the information you’re working on has been gotten ‘illegally?’ Where do you stand then?
Let me try and provide an example with a completely true event that occurred sometime in 2008.
As many of you know, for some years I have owned internet cafes, one of which was based in Richmond town centre, where this event unfolds. The main café area was very large and could accommodate comfortably 9 laptops, 4 express PCs, 12 people drinking coffee and 22 people on the internet.
It was a busy branch, averaging around 150 internet customers a day, many of whom were long stayers. This particular afternoon was a normal one, with around a dozen people on the PCs, evenly positioned according to our built in definitions of personal space. I was carrying out some form of minor maintenance somewhere in the building, and although I forget the details of that task, I do recall it involved me walking a great deal back and forth through the main internet area.
It’s a funny thing about running internet cafes, in that you’re always aware – at some level of consciousness – of what people are looking at. It’s not that you look at their screens directly, because you don’t really, but you just, well, know. The job hunters, the flat searchers, the social networking junkie – they’re all there, each representing their own demographic and, more often than we think, their own stereotype.
This particular day, after many walks back and forth carrying tools and bits of equipment, I became aware that a large portion of people were on dating sites. This is not unusual and is, in fact, one of the top five reasons people visit an establishment such as ours. Once I became aware, I started to take more interest and evaluate the situation.
There were definitely about twelve people online, of mixed race and sex, but not more than around ten years in age range between the oldest and youngest. My eyes jumped from screen to screen as I walked through the room as I did so I started to believe that something truly unusual was unfolding in front of me. Another (this time completely contrived) walk through the room confirmed it. Every single customer was on a dating site, not necessarily the same one, but ‘searching’ nonetheless. Some were even chatting using the Instant Messaging feature of the sites. Was it even feasible that they could actually be chatting to someone who was in the SAME CAFE???
Suddenly I felt alone and vulnerable. Alone because it was like I had been given a very important piece of information and none of the twelve backs facing me knew that I knew it and vulnerable because it was information that should be rightfully passed on immediately. Wasn’t it? I mean, surely, SURELY, the logical thing was to stand on a desk, clap my hands loudly and say ‘your attention please ladies and gentlemen, the person you’re looking for is …. NEXT TO YOU!’ and then they’d all smile, laugh at themselves and the girl on PC 3 would wink at the guy on PC 14 and they’d get together, followed by the couple on PCs 6 and 22 and so on, until it would be a warm fuzzy ‘feel good romcom ending’ unfolding in the café. Happy music would play, the screen would freeze frame with the obligatory text updates ‘John and Mary both left Match.com and were married six month later’ and ‘Steve and Britney sold their properties and started a commune in New Zealand’, that sort of thing. At least, that’s how it played out in my mind.
I couldn’t help thinking the reality might be different, but at the same time, being a closet romantic, I couldn’t help but think ‘what if?’. What if the perfect partner for someone was here? Wouldn’t a wild action from someone like myself with no other motive serve as a perfect way to introduce them? Alternatively, everyone in the place could just think I was a total weirdo, shun me completely, and continue typing in a heavy and difficult silence. In which case I’d chuck them all out since it was my bloody café anyway. Well, in my mind I would. In reality I’d just go for a walk until they’d all gone away.
No, I took the coward’s option and stayed silent, grabbing more tools and bits of materials after a moment’s hesitation, and walking back to my small engineering problem. Who knows how many lifetimes of bliss I destroyed that day? How many children now won’t exist because of inaction? Or how many mistakes avoided? How many ‘I’m embarrassed for you’ people were let off the hook? Would THEY have done differently? Would you
Eventually, of course, they all left the café, at different times, and went to different places to do different things, not knowing how close they’d come to either a lunatic’s display or their own destiny, or even both. But I often wonder, what if ….?
“Next time”, we say to ourselves, “we’ll do it”. And some of us have an extra line that we like to sometime add: “And this time I really mean it”
Of course you do.