NEW YORK—So I’m riding the downtown E train somewhere between 34th and 4th when one of New York’s mentally deranged performance artists starts reading loudly from a tattered typewritten manuscript that he’s obviously been carrying around with him for years. His recitation is full of screeds about “the rhythms of the corporate pariahs” and “the indignities of disease” and other semi-poetic phrases that make me think it’s some kind of academic paper that was rejected by some university somewhere decades ago, thereby starting this now-disheveled denizen of the underworld on his trip toward homelessness and isolation. He’s got a bad beard and a corduroy jacket that looks like insects live in it.
I don’t look up from my book because, believe it or not, I’ve seen him before. If you ride the same trains to the same places often enough, you start to get to know the mentally ill residents of the city, and I’m always struck by how precise their rants are. They don’t rave incoherently, as you might expect. Rather, they zero in on particular facts and then go over those facts incessantly, like librarians caught in a loop so that they can’t stop researching the same two sentences over and over again. New York must have the most highly educated insane people in the world.
And then I notice the guy across from me—late 20s, handsome, with a cute girlfriend immersed in her phone—and he’s pointing his iPhone toward the end of the car. He’s taping everything the insane man is saying and doing!
My first instinct is to suspect a scam or some undergraduate Pavlov’s Dog project—they’re trying to see whether people will interact with the deranged person. But after a while I see the videographer confer with the girlfriend, reboot the video camera when he runs out of time, alter his seating position for a better angle—he’s doing this for his own purposes.
Is he making a documentary on the homeless? Is he like the protagonist in C.H.U.D., the professional photographer roaming the tunnels of SoHo searching for the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers who were irradiated by toxic waste? No, as we finally pull into World Trade Center station and everybody gets off the train except our bound-for-Bellevue monologuist, it’s obvious that this particular video is just for the video hipster’s personal file. He lingers to get one last shot of the homeless guy continuing to orate to an empty car. I guess the director of this movie is gonna send it to his friends and say, “Get a load of this guy.”
Okay, I guess it shouldn’t bother me. I’m a First Amendment radical. You can take a picture or a video of anyone in a public space, and there’s no space more public than the New York City subway system. But what’s the point of this constant monitoring of one another with video cameras even when we’re not doing anything harmful to anyone else? What’s the point of circulating a video of a man who’s obviously not at his strongest and running the risk of someone who knew him as an articulate younger man with fine prospects seeing that and causing some sort of humiliation?
In San Francisco, where they try to make everything illegal, they put up “Ask First” signs all over street fairs and other public events and sometimes claim that taking a picture of someone without permission is the same as sexually groping them. Fortunately we don’t have to deal with the absurdity of this premise, because we know it started in San Francisco, but it speaks to just how often the issue comes up.
My point is that there’s an army of paparazzi out there, but it’s not the ones who hang around the stage doors waiting for Beyoncé to emerge. After all, those guys have a great motive: money. They’re supporting their families. What I don’t get is the purely voyeuristic types who wanna post random gossip about people no one else has heard of before the post showed up. They’re pop-up citizen reporters for an audience that’s not looking for that information in the first place. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Here’s something so obscure that only I know about it.”
And that’s my problem with it. If you don’t put a filter on your 24/7 iPhone video eye, then you waste everyone’s time—or at least everyone silly enough to trust your post in the first place. It’s some indicator of the affluence of this country that we do have that much time to waste. But if there weren’t eager consumers, we wouldn’t have random posters. That means mental illness itself has become a form of “content.” Schizophrenia has become entertainment.
As for the obscurantist poet on the E train, patiently working through his thick manuscript for what is probably the hundredth time, I guess the guerrilla iPhone press is a good thing. As the train reversed direction and started back uptown, no one got onto his car with him, but that didn’t faze him at all. He continued to orate, like the missionary priest in Africa who sermonizes in the empty village church because “if we speak of God here, they will eventually come.” There’s something pure about his mission. I can’t say as much for the people who photograph him in order to get some social-media hits later. Really, now, who is more deranged?