Two-thousand, two hundred and forty-six dollars.
That’s how much the man sitting next to me at the Immigration Forum had in his Citibank account. I know this, not because I’m a stalker (I’m nowhere near that stealthy) but because this guy was a careless, close-phone-holder.
And he was short.
Plus, he slouched.
All these factors, meant that it only took a slight left turn of my head – which happened often as I sought to give the forum’s speakers my attention – to see what drew close-phone-holder’s attention to his phablet and away from the forum.
In addition to his bank balance (which he checked at least a dozen times over the course of the two hour meeting), there was the text to an associate about how enjoyable drinks were at B-Dubs, queries about what older men should wear to clubs in Vegas, and a search for Miracle Ear hearing aids – which made sense given all of the “Huh?”s and “What?”s he loudly sent his son’s way during the forum.
Or maybe this man, who had the appearance of a just stopping off for a gallon of milk after a long day at the office – tailored shirt unbuttoned at the collar, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up – had no intention of listening in the first place? This became clear to me as the meeting went on. No, he was here to support his boy, who was the more disrespectfully engaged of the two, and to check his phone.
Junior, who appeared to be in his early twenties, beat-boxed his way through the meeting, scoffing and grunting at any mention of immigration’s historic role in weaving together the fabric of his community. His disapproving whispers scratch-scratch-scratched against the backbeat of the panelist’s comments, dismissing each person’s claims before they were finished making them.
Remember, I could see everything that danced across the screen of close-phone-holder’s phablet, including the texts his son was so feverishly sending him between gasps and guffaws. If these missives were to be believed, then junior knew more about the law than the chief of police AND the city’s solicitor. He knew more about immigration’s impact on the community than a professor who made the subject his specialty at the local university. The minister whose congregation dealt with immigrants on a daily basis? Useless, as was the vastly unqualified school district official. And – surely – this young man’s perspective as a lifelong city resident and ‘Murican citizen was more cogent to the conversation than a fellow resident’s who – while also a U.S. citizen – was not BORN here. When dad validated this claim with the assertion that junior had the wrong skin color, I snapped.
I turned towards father and son and, in my angriest, most condescending whisper, told them that I could see everything on dad’s screen. Why, I demanded, was he looking at his bank account so often?! No, showing off a little chest hair was NOT a good look for ANYONE, let alone someone his age; and – most importantly – can you hear me okay, because I’m trying to tell you how rude and disrespectful you are?
I had my say and I left my seat to take a walk.
Out in the hall, away from my wife, the crowd, one of my bosses who shared the stage, and those two trolls whose behavior so incensed me, I did what most people would do: I took out my phone, opened my search engine, and I started to Hyde. I knew junior’s name – it was on the screen right in front of me for more than half the meeting – and my joints popped and swelled as my now knobby fingers ran across my phone.
I trolled them. Blatantly.
I learned that junior survived a childhood illness that required two organ transplants. I discovered that as a teenager he had been arrested for driving around town and shooting kids with a pellet gun. Dad, on the other hand, was a local business owner. You could find his commercials, touting his years of dedication and service to the community he called home, online, his outsized personality filling the screen. How, I wondered, would he treat the woman he and his son mocked from behind their phones if she were to ever walk into his office looking for car insurance?
I learned that they had relatively open social media profiles, and I was tempted to call them out in a Facebook post – to challenge any of my friends who may have business with dad’s company to rethink who they paid their premiums to.
I looked around some more.
Despite their behavior at the forum, both father and son seemed relatively apolitical online. Junior's posts were typical for a college student who was looking to define himself by who he wanted to become as opposed to who he had been in high school. Look! I'm witty and ironic. I read things. I'm not the village idiot. I imagine my profile would've looked the same had Facebook been (ahem) around when I started college.
Dad's page reflected an older man's desire to embrace technology in a way that told the rest of the world, "No, I'm not too old for this!” He had many pictures, a few memes, and some general, emoji free status updates, with the occasional awkward accidental "message" that was really meant for one person and not his public wall. I saw no evidence online of the people they were sitting next to me. They had a lot friends. Tons of family. They seemed decent. They were loved.
I put my phone to sleep and went back to my seat. I was still mad, but not just at them. There was a bit of a stink on me. How do you reconcile and confront the shit that people do without becoming shitty yourself? This question followed me back to my seat.
The rest of the meeting was quiet, but I still had trouble staying focused on the speakers. When things drew to a close, a woman sitting in front of us – who wore the trappings of a Buddhist and had obviously heard the earlier commotion – turned to junior with a warm, radiant smile and asked, “Did you get your questions answered?” Dad was already moving to leave, but junior paused, stopped cold, really. He wasn’t expecting this. As my wife and I got up to leave, he and the Buddhist were talking politely.