Glenn Close, personal space and a walk down Sutter Street

January 17, 2009 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


I met Glenn Close on Wednesday.
Well, “met” may be a slight exaggeration.
There was no handshake or “Nice to meet you Glenn, I’m Cathy,” sort of exchange. But we did walk an entire city block and cross two intersections together; and if I were measuring my encounter with her by the terms of social networks and Web 2.0 technologies, she and I are practically best friends now.
Of course that’s ridiculous, but the experience did make me rethink just what it means to balance personal space with being part of this always connected world in which we live.
It began when I spotted her standing at the corner of Stockton and Sutter streets (the southeast corner in front of the Starbucks, to be specific). It was just before 9:30am and I was heading for Sears Fine Food and Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Jungle breakfast.
The previous night I watched the season two premiere of Damages, the F/X series that Ms. Close kicked off last year. Her character, Patty Hewes, is a vicious litigator whose threadbare ethics seem wrapped around a deeply moral core. She may play dirty, but in the end it appears that all she really wants is justice. Or she’s pathologically evil. You’re never really sure, and that’s part of the intrigue.
I love this show and have talked about this character often – and there she was. Well, there was the woman who plays the role that I enjoy so much. It felt a perfect opportunity to thank this wonderful actress for her work.
But I didn’t.
In fact, I stood on the corner next to her and didn’t say a word. Not then and not as we walked down the block. For the uninitiated, I’m not exactly the most shy retiring sort, so one might ask how it’s possible that I could have walked the entire length of Union Square just about arm’s length from one of my favorite actresses of all times and not speak to her?
She didn’t look like she wanted to talk with anyone. From the moment I noticed her, she had about as inward facing body language as you can imagine. She cast her eyes around a bit, but for the most part kept her gaze fixed slightly down and in front.
Even her physical stance seemed muted. When the light changed and we stepped from the curb, she did so gingerly and seemed to be moving in the manner of someone just off a physical injury of some sort – a stark contradiction to the powerful strides of Patty Hewes.
Whether her insular focus was due to not feeling well, having a bad day or perhaps just not having had her morning coffee was irrelevant. She just seemed like she didn’t want to be interrupted. So I left her alone.
My pace was slightly faster so I reached the next intersection about 20 steps ahead. As I stood there a nattily dressed fellow in a splendid pair of boots walked up. I complimented his attire, we chatted a moment and as we finished, Ms. Close reached the corner standing next to me.
With the light about to change, I began to turn towards the intersection myself, and that’s when it happened. Another passer-by caught sight of Ms. Close on the corner. And after uttering a squeal of delight this woman fairly leapt to the curbside next to Ms. Close, grabbed her arm and chortled, “Oh my GOD, I just LOVE your work. You are just DIVINE, and …”
My glance shot immediately to Ms. Close to see her reaction and watched as her initial wide-eyed surprise (tinged with fear, I think) melted quickly into a most gracious countenance, albeit with a slightly frozen smile.
An eternity passed, the light changed and with a quick thank you, Ms. Close gently extricated her arm from the woman’s grasp and stepped into Powell Street. Matching her stride, I found myself shoulder to shoulder (well, not quite, as she’s quite a bit more petite than I had thought), crossing the street. Without turning to her directly, and keeping my voice in a low, modulated tone (appropriate for the close proximity with which we stood) I took a deep breath and spoke to her.
“Of course, I recognized you a block or so back, but you really seemed to be having a personal moment and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
I paused and watched for a reaction. Ms. Close did a double take and I found myself on the receiving end of a deeply genuine smile and the unmistakable blue sparkle from behind her sunglasses. I felt the door was still open, so I continued: “I’ve been a fan of your work for some time, and love so many of the characters you’ve played, but that Patty Hewes, she’s just deliciously duplicitous. I adore her.”
Then I grinned.
By this point we had reached the other side of Powell and Ms. Close had stopped next to me as I finished. She nodded at my description of the character, said thank you and met my grin. Then she gave my arm a squeeze, leveled a slightly more serious smile my way, paused and repeated: “Thank you.” Then she walked into the Walgreens and I continued to Jeff’s breakfast.
The whole thing took less than a couple of minutes to transpire, and yet it sat with me throughout the morning and into the afternoon. What was it about this that was niggling on my brain so much? And more to the point that you may be wondering right about now: What on earth does this have to do with technology?
Both good questions, and there’s a common answer.
It used to be that famous people – whether actors, politicians, business people or any other ilk – were deemed more important if for no other reason than they had the ability to gain the attention of a large audience. The American culture still puts a great degree (too much if you ask me) of importance on fame, but the truth is that today’s hyper-connectivity puts more and more people into a position more like that of Ms. Close than ever before.
We have truly Internet famous people who are in effect a collective MiniMe for real celebrities (think those whose Twitter followers lay in the tends of thousands). Out in the “real” world, these folks are relatively unknowns (most of them) but in our little echo chamber they are celebrities. And then thanks to social media, regular old folks like you and me are watched, or in geek vernacular “followed” every day. The number of people watching may be exponentially smaller for the average person, but the nature of that watching is no less intense.
In some cases the watchful eyes are familiar, but quite often those eyes belong to strangers … strangers to whom we’ve granted an open door to our lives – or at least part of them. Suddenly there are people who feel (accurately or not) they know who you are, because they have constant access to “how” you are (or at least to what you’re doing at any given moment).
This means that on some level each and every one of us can appreciate or understand that even in a world that’s always connected, every person deserves an opportunity to unplug. And sometimes that opportunity doesn’t come at a far-flung spa but walking down a moderately populated city street.
My lesson from this experience is that even though we may choose to splay much of our lives onto platforms where many people can see, hear and share with us, that does not – or at least should not – preclude the very basic social practices taught before you were judged by how many email addresses you have.
In as much as we stride forward using these technologies, embracing them and all the sticky, complex connectivity that result we cannot forget that in order to inhabit our own individual space, we need to be mindful of the fact that others need their space too.


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