OPEN DOOR, SHUT MOUTH? Commuters sharing a cab might find that checking their cellphones is a good way to avoid conversation. If not, a few choice lines could help.
I slid over toward the man in the gray suit, making sure not to look him in the eye. Between us lay only a few inches of cushion and an awkward silence. “I’ve never done this before,” I said, though it wasn’t entirely true. “I’d feel less awkward if — could I ask your name?”
He said it was Philip. He said he worked in the apparel industry. Lies, for all I know, and so what if they were?
We were exploring one of New York’s last unfamiliar social configurations, making it up as we went. We were sharing a cab.
It was the second day of the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s new program to make cabs a slightly more public form of transportation. The rule is, at one of three spots in Manhattan, from 6 to 10 a.m., people can pile in for a group ride to Grand Central, for $3 or $4 a head.
No one had to articulate the other rule, which is: shut up. If anyone tries to speak, politely ignore her.
In its combination of physical proximity and psychic distance, the taxi-sharing experiment sounded like a microcosm of New York. Like hearing your neighbor’s intimate moments through the bedroom wall, but not acknowledging him when you see him by the mailboxes. Or standing closer to a sweaty ogre on the subway than you ever would to your best friend, all the while willing your mind to someplace very far away. Up close and impersonal: that’s the way we seem to like it.
Shared taxis offer all that, crammed into 100 cubic feet of space with the meter running. Could New Yorkers maintain their active disregard under that kind of pressure? The start of the ride-sharing program seemed a psychology dissertation in the making, and I had my opening lines all ready to go.
The only problem was: there were no test subjects. On the program’s first two days, the only people lining up at the three pickup points were other journalists. Drivers did not slow as they passed by. So I approached people who were hailing their own cabs, pretended to be heading in the same direction and offered to share. After getting rejected for the 12th or 13th time, I started offering to pay the whole fare — not a cab share, a cab gift. That only creeped people out more. Eventually I was riding around in the back seat of my own taxi with the window open, yelling, “Come on, get in!” to anyone with a hand in the air.
No, that doesn’t work.
Begging Whole Foods shoppers in Union Square to let me ferry them and their bags home, I saw two cops in matching chartreuse rain slickers chuckling at my desperation. “Everyone’s suspicious of something free,” I whined. “If I were charging a lot of money for it, there’d be a long line.”
“Welcome to New York,” one said.
Mike, a film student at Hunter College, leaned into the window to inquire: Did I really mean it? He had to go to Old Navy in SoHo to exchange a gift from his mother. Mike spent the whole trip telling me what a nice surprise it was to share a cab. “For someone to say, ‘Can I help you, can I make things easier for you?’ ” In New York, he sputtered, “It’s just — it’s just not done.” Neither is being so unguarded with a stranger. Or so I thought.
On the Upper East Side I found Kirsten, a recent college graduate working in finance. With a tight blond ponytail, pearl earrings and a tailored trench coat, she seemed too restrained to talk about anything other than the weather. But as we headed to her Midtown office, she confessed to feeling as if she had arrived in finance just as the party was ending. Then she told me that the regulatory proposals would consolidate too much power in Washington.
Four minutes into the ride and we had already done money and politics, things people supposedly don’t discuss with strangers. So I asked if she was a person of faith, and bingo, we hit the trifecta, all before the meter even registered $5.
A second Mike, who works in television and wore a jaunty Tyrolean cap, saw nothing odd about cab sharing. “New Yorkers, of all people, are used to rubbing up against each other,” he noted. Mike said he took out-of-town friends on the subway just to see this in action. But I doubt he tells his A-train seat mates that he is on his way to his therapist’s office, which is on the same block as his wife’s therapist’s office and right next to their couples therapist. Ever gotten that much information between subway stops? Only from people trying to sell salvation or Street News.
Even Philip, the apparel executive I picked up at Grand Central, had a confession. After acknowledging how discount retailers have hurt his industry, he told me that he had stopped shopping at department stores too. And when he does go, he buys from the sale rack.
Why were New Yorkers so reluctant to share a cab yet so willing to share everything else? And if the group-ride program picks up speed, how soon might sharing give way to oversharing? Then the challenge will be how to silence the chatter. Fiddling with a BlackBerry would work, sure. But I’ve still got some unused opening lines, yours for the taking: “Anyone know a gynecologist near Penn Station?” “Boy, the [ethnic group X] sure do get a lot of mileage out of that [historical tragedy Y], don’t they?” “Sorry to bug you, but do you know anything about rashes?” They’ll get the message.