The actor Matthew Mondine once totally ignored me. He was attending a film festival at which I was a volunteer usher, and his entourage was leading him towards the question-and-answer session he was to host. Obviously, he was focussed on his goal and I didn’t expect him to acknowledge me. I was totally irrelevant to him, and I quietly stepped aside so that he did not need to be aware of me. That’s what ushers do.
Even before I was a film festival usher, though, I had already started to become less visible. I think it started after I turned fifty, and it was a little surprising to realize how many people fail to be aware of older people. It’s not something people do consciously, so it’s probably tied to some fundamental survival instinct. We need to be aware of people who are either a threat to us or can help us, and old people are generally neither. Old people, it is presumed, cannot run fast, or think fast, or solve computer problems, so there isn’t much need to be aware of us most of the time.
One of my sons was formerly a bar tender and he has noticed that restaurant servers are often invisible to their customers who usually practice a kind of willful ignorance. Without intending to eavesdrop, servers often overhear conversations that would otherwise be very private. In fact some politicians have had their comeuppance when their words or actions have been recorded by food servers or bar tenders. The people who have a public image to protect often imagine they are entirely in the company of friends when they say or do things that are ethically or morally questionable; however, they completely forget the presence of the wait staff, especially after a couple of drinks.
Also invisible to us are the people in cars other than our own. Have you ever seen another driver doing something odd or amusing or embarrassing while stopped at a traffic light? They had forgotten you were there. Our cars create cloaks of invisibility around us all, so that we can imagine we are unseen. Only the traffic signals and vehicles on the road are visually informative; people inside their vehicles are not relevant to our driving awareness.
Every now and then, someone who would otherwise be invisible makes themselves obvious, and we are forced to pay attention. We get very uncomfortable if we see an usher making a fuss in a theatre, or an older person dressing like a teenager, or a restaurant server who engages us in personal conversation, or a driver picking his nose. Some people are just supposed to be invisible. We assume that is part of the social contract.
Unfortunately, we really take umbrage if the person being ignored is ourselves, and sometimes we do something about it. Accordingly, I’m going to buy some jeggings and an off-the-shoulder sloppy t-shirt to wear just in case I ever come across another film star. Then I’ll be ready to be noticed.