ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS IN HOLLYWOOD, California - “I told Curtis to bring some alcohol.”
There were only three people in the elevator: the woman proclaiming that she had told Curtis to bring the alcohol, another woman who had gotten into the elevator car first, and your correspondent, newly arrived from the Midwest. This was at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel on Hollywood Boulevard; she certainly couldn’t have been talking to me, for I knew neither her nor Curtis.
I looked at the second woman - the woman who wasn’t doing the talking. She shrugged.
“He’s still at that golf tournament,” the first woman said, loudly. She paused a beat, then laughed uproariously.
The second woman and I exchanged glances again. The telling thing is that by this point we didn’t even have to wonder. We knew that, if we were to look closely, we would find a wire snaking into the first woman’s ear. As high-volume and full of hilarity as she was, she wasn’t talking to either of us - even here, even in a small elevator with two fellow riders, she was carrying on an animated phone conversation with someone not present.
My traveling companions on CNN’s newsroom-on-wheels and I had stopped for the night at this Hollywood hotel in the days before the presidential primary election in California (and throughout the nation). If people are surprised by the depth and fervency of the passions being displayed by citizens, regardless of ideology, during this year’s race for the presidency, perhaps part of that surprise is because the emotions being shown for certain candidates put to the lie something that we have recently taken for granted - something emblemized, in its own small way, by the woman in the elevator.
She had shut us out, automatically. I don’t think she even considered that she might be displaying any rudeness; we, in all the ways that mattered, weren’t even there. She had a list of people who were permitted a place in her life. No one else counted. It wasn’t that there was anything unusual about her attitude - she was utterly contemporary and conventional, a mirror of society’s current-day view of itself, and of the world.
And yet. . . .
There used to be a phrase utilized to sum up the insularity of presidential campaigns: “inside the cocoon.” It referred to life within the confines of the campaign jets, or the campaign press buses - it meant that those who traveled with a candidate were in peril of developing a skewed view of the outer world, because their sole points of reference were the events, and players, involved in the campaign itself.
The cocoon theory, rather than diminish, has expanded: living in a cocoon has in large measure become the American way of life. The sidewalks are filled with people looking down at tiny screens nestled in their palms, checking for messages, searching for flashing signals from people miles away, not wanting or needing to make eye contact with the living human beings in their immediate proximity. Friendship is a strictly defined commodity granted with the tap of a key: an electronic transaction on ultimately-for-profit computer sites. The cocoon, as a bedrock principle for living, offers the illusion of safety - by shutting out all that is unknown, the cocoon promises: these high walls around you are good for you.
So this year’s unusual campaign for the presidency - regardless of who you may or may not be supporting - is an unanticipated step in the other direction. It takes quite a leap of faith to proclaim your belief, and trust, in someone, and something, unknown. To acknowledge that you are ready for something, and someone, different is to admit that the things with which you are familiar may not, after all, be the things on which your future is best based.
This all has to do with looking up from those screens in your palms; it has to do with gazing around you and acknowledging: maybe it’s time to let the outside in. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party; the candidates in each are trumpeting the concept of change, but maybe the change the nation is beginning to hunger for has little to do with politicians or policies, and everything to do with ourselves. Maybe the change we apparently so thirst for goes well beyond matters electoral.
Or maybe not. “That is so funny,” the woman in the elevator loudly said, and laughed again. We reached the lobby and she departed without saying a word of farewell to the two of us who were actually there, sharing the space with her. And why should she? We didn’t exist.
Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.