Lin­ing up for some so­cial in­ter­ac­tion

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

Ire­al­ized some­thing over the last few days, in a way I had not be­fore: If you or­der ev­ery­thing on­line, whether a new bathrobe or a corned beef sand­wich — and the temp­ta­tion to do that is prob­a­bly greater than ever — you put the ran­dom at risk. You miss things that only hap­pen in the real world: Chance en­coun­ters with celebri­ties or old friends, con­ver­sa­tions with pleas­ant strangers, the sights and sounds and aro­mas of the hu­man race. You miss the big stuff and the lit­tle stuff. If you drive every­where and never take the bus, you miss out­breaks of de­bate among fel­low trav­el­ers and great op­por­tu­ni­ties for eaves­drop­ping. If you never buy a ticket to the the­ater or sym­phony, you miss art at its mo­ment of cre­ation. You can wait for movies to be live-streamed to your 72-inch LED TV with HDR, but if you missed “Won­der Woman” on the 40-foot screen at the his­toric Sen­a­tor The­ater, that goes down as a loss, an op­por­tu­nity that might never come again.

So I went shop­ping at 7 a.m. on Black Fri­day be­cause I fig­ured I should have that ex­pe­ri­ence while I still can. Ev­ery Thanks­giv­ing, we make a fuss about hol­i­day sales and the fierce hordes of savvy shop­pers who go out in the wee hours to take ad­van­tage of them. But with the demise of some ma­jor re­tail­ers, the clos­ing of stores and the growth of on­line shop­ping, how much longer will we see mobs of peo­ple rac­ing into stores on Black Fri­day?

So I went to Macy’s in Tow­son to see what this Amer­i­can tra­di­tion looks like. I saw plenty of wide-awake, pur­pose­ful shop­pers, but noth­ing you would call a mob. If there was bus­tle, it was bus­tle on the level you might find at late-morn­ing on a Satur­day. I saw no one fight­ing over sweaters.

I bumped into a rack of Ralph Lau­ren bathrobes and sur­ren­dered to the temp­ta­tion to buy one at 25 per­cent off.

My brief visit to Macy’s would have been un­event­ful but for the woman in front of me at the reg­is­ter. She was dressed in red yoga pants and a red sweat­shirt, and her ear­rings were repli­cas of Christ­mas presents — inch-and-ahalf cubes in hol­i­day wrap­ping that dan­gled about two inches from each ear. I could not take my eyes off the ear­rings.

The woman seemed happy and en­er­getic. I took her to be one of those Black Fri­day shop­pers you hear about — a scrupu­lous reader of ad­ver­tis­ing sup­ple­ments, fully in­formed about the best buys, ex­cited for the adventure, fru­gal but gen­er­ous with gifts. She’s prob­a­bly some­body’s fa­vorite aunt.

Be­ing a dig­i­tal con­sumer has un­de­ni­able ben­e­fits, but if you do it too much, you miss out on life’s lit­tle amuse­ments. And you risk miss­ing out on big ones, too. In my case, I missed an en­counter with Pro Foot­ball Hall of Famer Jonathan Og­den.

On Wed­nes­day, I was pressed for time and needed four sand­wiches from Attman’s on Lom­bard Street at 11:15 am. The usual rou­tine is to step into the aro­matic deli, squeeze past cus­tomers wait­ing to pay for their or­ders, take a spot at the end of the long line at the ser­vice counter, wait your turn to tell one of the sand­wich-mak­ers what you want, wait longer for it to be re­al­ized and maybe, if you’re lucky — and not glued to mes­sages on your smart­phone — strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with the per­son ahead of you. Attman’s has a kib­itz room, but a lot of kib­itz­ing takes place while you’re stand­ing in line. It’s one of the best things about the place.

But, this time, I or­dered on­line. When I went to Attman’s for my or­der, it was wait­ing for me: Four corned-beef-rye-mus­tard sand­wiches, two or­ders of slaw and four well-done pick­les packed in a white plas­tic bag by the reg­is­ter. The line of cus­tomers wait­ing for lunch was long, but I was in and out of the deli in five min­utes. What’s not to like about that, right? Og­den, who is now 44 years old and still 6-foot-9, the for­mer left tackle for the Bal­ti­more Ravens, tow­ered over all the other cus­tomers wait­ing in line. As I turned to leave, I re­al­ized that, had I or­dered lunch the old­fash­ioned way, I might have had the plea­sure of a 10-minute kib­itz with one of the best Ravens ever.

Hey, you can’t have it all. You can’t or­der on­line and still ex­pect spon­ta­neous con­ver­sa­tions with celebri­ties or pleas­ant strangers in line at Attman’s. If you just grab-and-go a cy­ber-or­dered sand­wich, you’ll never ex­pe­ri­ence the joc­u­lar repar­tee that has marked the rit­ual at the deli since im­mi­grants Harry and Ida Attman opened the place in 1915.

Of course, you know this. We all know it. And yet, the temp­ta­tion to buy ev­ery­thing on­line is stronger than ever. So I say buyer be­ware: Too deep into dig­i­tal, and we won’t know what we’re miss­ing.

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