Remembrances of conversations past
I didn”t really want to spend money on a cab, but I was incredibly late, and I simply had to get across town. Happily, I spotted an available taxi coming towards me about a block away. I put my hand up and stepped off the curb. Just then, a humongous SUV turned the corner. Like some kind of wounded elephant, it rolled forward at about four miles an hour in the middle of the street, obscuring my view of the cab as well as blocking most of the downtown traffic.
I gave up and put my hand back down. I did not want the cab driver, on my account, to risk having an accident by swerving in front of this vehicular menace in order to pick me up. But of course he did anyway. The taxi managed the maneuver quite deftly, while I cringed’s though gratefully. I hopped in.
â€œWow, what was that maniac back there doing? I said, more to commiserate with the driver than because it really bothered me. The driver turned his head around eagerly.
â€œRight, yes? Did you see that crazy man? He was Pakistani. He smiled happily to have someone to complain to. â€œI don”t know what he”s doing. He thinks maybe it is a parade. I laughed, and asked if he could move into the left turn lane at 96th Street, which was coming up. While we were trying to turn (we had a green left-turn signal), several oblivious pedestrians impeded our way by ignoring the â€œdon”t walk signal; in fact they ignored everything around them except for their phones, their feet moving ahead in blind confidence, as if they had smartphone apps to watch for oncoming cars and other potential dangers for them while their heads were bowed.
â€œThis intersection is so dangerous now, I said, just to make conversation. â€œThe turn signals were supposed to make it better, but they don”t work because no one pays attention. Again, I could tell my words were like a treat to him, and it was as if I had unleashed a flood.
â€œListen, listen, he said. â€œLet me tell you something incredible. And he recounted a long story of having an 80-year-old woman in his cab who was so incensed at the people walking across the street while looking at their phones that she started raving, saying, â€œYou should hit one of them; if you do, I promise I will sit in the cab with you, for hours, for days, no matter how long it takes to testify that it was not your fault. They deserve it.
â€œShe was so angry, this woman, said my driver, laughing. â€œIt was so wild.
Now, no matter how much of a Luddite I may be, I don”t advocate running anyone down. And I don”t think it was the driver”s position either. He was cheerful and animated, not angry at all. But in talking about this eccentric old woman, we entered into a lively discussion about the way cell phones have changed New Yorkers” modus operandi’s how no one looks at anything anymore, how much of real life people are missing. By the time I got across the park to Fifth Avenue, I was having such a good time I did not want to get out of the cab, and I could tell he did not want me to leave either. But alas, our time was up. We wished each other goodbye like old friends.
As I got out of the cab I realized what a rare thing I had just experienced; neither one of us had been on the phone, and that had made all the difference. I thought back to all the enlightening, enriching cab rides I have had throughout my years in New York City, particularly in the late “80s and early “90s, before the advent of cell phones. I had conversations with taxi drivers I still remember to this day. Now 90 percent of all cab drivers are on the phone while they drive’s usually via blue tooth. Taxis have become an impersonal service, almost like getting on a bus, instead of a one-to-one experience during which you could, with just a little effort, learn about each other”s lives.
I”ve said many times that New Yorkers (and tourists) are missing out on a key experience of the city by not being able to engage with the people who are driving them. But last week”s cross-town cab ride reminded me how much, by being on phones, the drivers are missing out on, too.
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