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The teenage boys who rang our bell on Halloween night said nothing, just nodded blankly at the 4-quart candy bowl. I figured they’d picked our house because it was the only one on the block with holiday decorations—a partially deflated volleyball-size gourd that hadn’t been carved and a couple of those overpriced bonsai pumpkins that the rats apparently laid claim to when the porch light was extinguished. Someone in the house reminded me that her government-issue .357 Magnum was nearby, in case the pair of uncostumed trick-or-treaters tried to collect my wallet for UNICEF, so I positioned myself accordingly before unbolting the door. I gave them each a miniature Almond Joy, and they in turn refused to leave the entryway. I offered them another candy, but they tried to make off with another few thousand grams of fat before I finally wrestled away the bowl. When the door was locked, I prayed that they’d both be stricken with gaping, painful cavities at the start of an upcoming three-day weekend. Then we killed the lights and hid upstairs for a while, although no one else showed up anyway.

That’s because no one really cares about Halloween anymore. This isn’t particularly surprising, since no one cares about anything anymore. All fall, for example, the networks have tried to figure out why no one is watching professional football, just as they tried all summer to concoct reasons for televised baseball’s demise. We don’t care about the second O.J. trial or Greta van Susteren’s hair. No one cares about making money the way they did in the ’80s. No one cares about holidays—just the day-after sales. The homeless are invisible again. The world ends at our borders. No one says a word about radon in the basement or the possibility of their Corvair flipping over in a high wind. And the only indications of this year’s elections were of course the stories about voter disinterest. No campaign literature. No calls from block captains. No bumper stickers. No idealistic volunteers pacing the sidewalks wearing sandwich boards and straw hats.

Sociologists would probably say the problem is apathy, although no one would care because no one studies sociology anymore. People studied sociology in the ’60s, when everyone cared about things like whether the people of Comoros were starving or living under an overly repressive dictatorial regime. The organization called CARE used to air TV commercials about shipping supplies to places like Comoros, and everyone either fasted for an afternoon or else donated money. But CARE must be gone or the networks refuse them free air time, so they’re no help. Now Sally Struthers begs on behalf of the world’s unfortunate, but no one has cared about her since the cancellation of All in the Family, so everyone in Comoros is probably still hungry or being held political prisoner. Besides, no one cares about geography anymore, so no one even knows where Comoros is.

People in the ’60s also cared about things like boycotting grapes, but after a while people stopped caring about migrant farmworkers and instead started caring about how long they should wash their fruit in case it was contaminated by pesticides. But then they found out that the tap water was just as lethal as the bug spray, so instead they started caring about whether Fresh Fields would still be open when they got home from work at night.

People finally stopped caring about the ’60s sometime in the ’80s, when they realized that replacing all their vinyl with CDs would require enormous cash outlays. After that, everyone cared about being heavily leveraged and getting points on the gross rather than the net. But then someone said that cell phones might cause brain cancer, and after that everyone stopped caring about greed, cocaine, and Abba. Abba is back now, not that anyone cares.

Naturally, no one has ever cared much about the ’90s, even though the decade is almost over. Instead, people went directly to caring about the new millennium. On the cusp of the new new age, people began longing for a simpler, more fulfilling lifestyle, and either affiliated themselves with a house of worship or else bought a bread-making machine. But now everyone buys their seven-grain sourdough at Fresh Fields when they stop in for organically grown grapes, and they only care about the millennium because of some computer virus that may stall their paychecks or, God forbid, their Medicare payments.

But some people don’t care about the computer bug because they don’t care about their paychecks. Last June, I met a woman in a tiny Montana town just north of Yellowstone National Park who had given up a career as a hotshot East Coast commodities trader for a front-desk job at a second-rate motel. “I don’t even care about a career anymore,” she confided in me, describing how she’d cast off her stunned husband and ample worldly possessions for this simpler existence—a life transformation that was in keeping with a burgeoning national trend, she insisted. I told her that I couldn’t quite see the appeal of forswearing incredibly lucrative quarter-point moves in February orange juice contracts for overseeing the machinations of a balky ice-making machine, but she obviously didn’t care about my thoughts on her change of venue. In fact, when I complained that I’d been kept awake all night by coins tumbling in the clothes dryers that abutted my overpriced room, she didn’t offer me a refund or even show me any sympathy.

That’s because no one cares about their customers’ happiness anymore. It used to be that when you wrote to inquire about the riboflavin content of a breakfast cereal, the company would automatically send you a case of the product and a heartfelt letter, signed by the CEO, thanking you for your patronage. Now when you get $600 worth of quarters for the slot machines in Atlantic City, the guy in the casino’s change booth doesn’t even wish you good luck. I called to complain about my Internet service recently and threatened to switch providers. Predictably, the customer service representative said he didn’t care, that I could take my business elsewhere if I was so unhappy.

Maybe all the indifference is attributable to no one caring about the consequences of their actions. No one pays attention to the sign that says No Right Turn On Red anymore; they go through the light anyway, and getting caught in the act is apparently no cause for worry. People used to hyperventilate when a police car appeared in the rearview mirror, but now motorists don’t care about the flashing blue light behind them. They fight with police. They swear at judges. They fall asleep at their sentencing hearings. They don’t seem to care about being sent to prison, even if it means ending up as the shackled love slave of some titanic lifer nicknamed “Thrust.”

Men used to care about their macho personas; now they appear on Rolanda wearing giant diapers and baby bonnets, which they offhandedly insist gives them the sort of sexual gratification their spouses never could. Women used to care about being the reasoned antidote to barbarian male aggressiveness, but now they get in your face so often that they seem to be auditioning for the part of spare nose.

Nor does anyone care about his appearance, which is hardly a surprise. After all, the only human contact most people have anymore is with the pizza delivery man or the counter help at the video store, and who cares what some 19-year-old misfit with a titanium faucet washer drilled through his tongue thinks about your looks? As a result, appearance has become inconsequential. People are slovenly, their hair unkempt, their clothing ill-fitting and unmatched. Obese people spoon themselves into Spandex jumpsuits and then march off to the coffee shop, where they forgo the skim milk for three shots of half-and-half. So what if their thighs resemble 40-gallon drums of buffalo sausage and people along their route are openly pointing in disbelief? The disregard for appearance is echoed by the sudden neglect in matters of health. No one cares about their cholesterol count anymore. No one is lined up to use the StairMaster. Because they don’t care and neither does the next guy.

The word “care” is used so infrequently it’s becoming a lexical dodo, an anachronistic siren from another time. The Care Bears have died and been reincarnated as laser-wielding assassins. “I really care for you” has become the first words in a very predictable kiss-off.

Instead, the word shows up most frequently to describe the absence of concern: I could care less. It’s the ideal summary for the unenthusiastic or indifferent, which is to say just about everyone. Psychiatrists would likely label this phenomenon a symptom of festering alienation, although everyone stopped caring about their opinions when insurance companies cut benefits and we were all forced to give up co-dependency therapy in favor of early-afternoon overdoses of Melatonin.

But maybe this care-free attitude is OK. After all, I used to care about being thoughtful and provocative, but now I realize that no one cares enough about what I have to say to even read it all the way through, and they certainly don’t care enough to actually write a letter about it. I cared about not botching facts or committing grammatical errors, but no one cares enough about the language anymore to even know if an error has been made. I cared about misquoting people or misspelling words, but that’s obviously no longer an issue. And I cared about coming up with the perfect ending, which took a lot of effort and cut into time otherwise spent watching the Discovery Channel’s daily installment of lions battling hyenas for a wildebeest carcass. But now I don’t care if the stupid thing just ends with no ending at all. Why should I?CP