COLUMN: There’s no ‘turn video off’ option in public and we have to get used to that again


Eric Henry

Patrons sit in a modified outdoor seating area at Lake Street Kitchen + Bar in Oak Park.

After an entire year of online classes, working and meeting remotely, the pandemic has given people the normalcy to hide behind a screen and sometimes turn the camera off. 

Whenever I felt overwhelmed, had the need to hold back uncomfortable tears or wanted to get a laugh off without someone knowing, I had the luxury of turning off my Zoom camera and hiding what I was feeling in the moment. An online format pulled the curtains for all of us to be more distant as people –– whether we wanted it or not. 

But the world is opening up a little bit again. Perhaps it’s the warmer weather or more people being fully vaccinated now, but people are out again. Without the convenience of the “turn video off” button in public, people are showing that they’re actually bodies of thoughts and emotions again –– not just beings behind a screen or words behind a post. 

People being out again does not mean the Covid-19 pandemic is over; there are still hundreds of people dying in the U.S. and tens of thousands more all over the world. This faint improvement in the pandemic shows that for so long, people were holding back feelings they longed to express, whether that be joy, anger, sadness or grief. And as someone who held those back too, it’s comforting to see them welcomed in public again a bit. 

My boyfriend and I are fortunate to be fully vaccinated now, and with that, we have slowly adjusted to going back to some pre-pandemic activities. We decided one night to sit outside for a quick meal at a restaurant near where we live and knew to be safe and spread out. 

We expected people to be out too –– it was a beautiful day, one of the warmest this year so far. We both took the opportunity to watch people a bit, and what we saw was both beautiful and sad. 

Across from us at a table was a young couple and their dog. They were sitting together, holding hands, and it flattered both of us to not be the only couple showing a little bit of affection in public. 

But after a while of my eyes drifting from them and the other tables around me, I noticed the woman had some tears swelling up, and her dark stout the server had dropped off had gone un-sipped for an entire hour. There was no slice of pizza on her plate, despite a beautifully made pie on the rack in front of them. The man, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem taking gulps from his drink and munching on the snack while speaking back and forth with the woman. 

My first idea was that the couple was going through a breakup –– but the thing about people being in public again is that you can’t make assumptions about whatever it is they are going through. We aren’t as transparent as people in public as we are on social media. 

I could tell the woman was holding back tears but as the man reached out for her hand again –– she let one drop to the side of her cheek. Her pain could be made obvious as she let her eyesight drift away from the man as he kept his on her. 

She sat in silence as he kept on biting and sipping away at the contents on their table. Soon, the check came and they walked away — his cup empty, her stout filled to the brim. 

My boyfriend and I were left to guess about whatever it was that took place in front of our eyes. And we only hoped that the young couple — and their dog of course –– would be ok. 

During our dinner we observed a couple passersby coming from the same direction, holding waffle cones, sugar cones and cups of ice cream. So we thought we would backtrack to find the source. 

We came upon a cute little family-owned ice cream shop and outside the shop on the bench sat two adults with a young child in the middle. Licking on their cones, I could tell the two adults were giddy to see their young boy between them slobbered up with melting ice cream all over his face and clothes. 

Together they took turns using their napkins to clean them up but they didn’t seem annoyed or stressed. They just looked happy to be out together again, showing the world that it is a place for love, family and eating ice cream on a bench before the sun melted it away.

I now see people again hurriedly waiting on train platforms expressing their nervousness about being late for where they needed to be –– stretching their necks trying to locate the incoming Red Line. 

Couples at the tables I serve reach out for one another across the table –– longing to express their love in public. Then they quickly show their embarrassment when they pull apart their meeting hands when they see me, their server, come over to take their orders. 

I see groups of people’s anger now, when crossing the street and a car cuts through the intersection trying to beat the light. Middle fingers and swear words are being thrown around again. While the displays are of anger, anxiety, sadness and longness –– it inspires a sense of joy again. 

For an entire year we all have been distant from each other, not knowing what we were all going through behind our screens. And now, the pain and joy we see others express in public almost feels like a strange phenomenon. People are able to come out from behind their screens and show the world that feelings exist beyond just on social media, email and Zoom –– and belong in public, too. Gifting this out into the world is an entirely different feeling from typing an emoticon or reading a tweet from Twitter. 

These public displays are a sign that the pandemic is improving a bit. I just hope the U.S. welcomes more than its own emotions, thoughts and feelings and gives the rest of the world the opportunity to have vaccines and allow their people to be people in public again too. The world needs an open display of feelings and emotions again. Without giving the rest of the world access to the vaccines, people can’t be people when they’re still left trapped behind a screen –– unable to convey and express in the largest way.