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SuzeV Says


"Talk To A New Yorker!"


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NYC Time Traveler

Talk To A New Yorker!

Walking along my block toward the subway the other morning, I encountered a man standing stock-still on the sidewalk, holding onto a little boy with one hand while, with the other, he held an iPhone in front of his own face, so close to this eyes I doubted he was aware of anything around him but that small screen, which he was (or so it seemed) confusedly studying, rotating it this way and that.

I've been seeking this more and more lately: I instantly realized he was trying to navigate from a tiny section of a Google map without checking street signs or nearby addresses—or, needless to say, asking anyone for directions.

Being the helpful, not to mention certifiably local type, and hearing him mutter, "It's 140..." just as I was about to pass him by, I chimed in: "140 West End Avenue?"

"Sorry, I'm talking to him," he responded, referring to the kid. His wasn't, by the way, an entirely unfriendly tone, but he was clearly, entirely unwilling to engage with me rather than continuing to consult his cellphone source.

Fine, I thought, and kept walking. I was on my way to work, after all. But the building in question was directly across the street and he was still absurdly stranded. Sigh.

"It's right over there," I said, pointing to the clearly marked canopy before moving on along 66th.

"Hey, I found it, buddy, there it is: let's go!" he sang out to his son, and led him straight toward the crosswalk, still ignoring me altogether. Hey, listen: No reason Daddy shouldn't get all the credit for getting them where they were going. And why deal with a stranger when you've got your faithful phone to guide you everywhere?

But I couldn't help myself. "Talk to a New Yorker!" I threw over my shoulder with a laugh. And it is laughable, maybe the most ridiculous example yet of the cellphone myopia we all see everywhere we turn.

Yet something about it particularly rankles, this walking around my town with your nose pressed to a 2"x3" schematic of a place you don't know and aren't looking up to see with your own eyes. I can't you how often I have watched visitors desperately staring at that so-called smart screen, fully expecting it to reveal the secret of where in the city they might be—and, most crucial, why they haven't arrived at some pre-determined endpoint—without so much as a glance around at their actual current location. It's a world away from working with a real, unfolding map, or any decent guidebook, which at least provide some larger context, not to mention that you're required to take in, and process, what you're passing en route to this or that particular stop. Tech-supported tourists seem to privilege the destination over the journey—not an entirely surprising development, considering the culture's ever-increasing dependence on technology to provide results, and fast, with a minimum of research or other effort.

More unexpected, for me anyhow, is the frequency with which hopelessly lost people will nowadays assure you they're "good," in response to a well-intentioned offer of assistance. Yeah: we got our phones, our divining screens, and we're sticking with them. It's all good!

Fine, I smile, moving right along. What's happening here isn't a simple matter of embarrassment over outsiderness, or hurt pride over being shown up as not so city smart. Believe me, I understand how uncool it can feel to stand on a street corner and have a local call you out as something Other. Traveling anywhere else, I'm as self-conscious as anyone about the camera, the maps, t he Rough Guide, making my Tourist status stupidly self-evident. So I try to be sensitive in approaching even the most turned-around travelers to my hometown: I won't do it at all unless they seem open to a random someone helping them find their way. Then too, I've got to have the time to stop and talk, maybe walk along a little with them, until I'm sure they're truly good to go.

It's nothing special, really, just standard operating procedure for many a savvy New  York native forever. What has changed is the diffidence of cellphone users who rely on their devices to connect them to so many things, including other human beings, though at a safely controllable remove: we know more and more are texting rather than making personal calls (and many who do phone are hoping to reach voicemail.) My point is, only rarely will people frowning over physical maps wave me off when I ask if they're all right, whether I can be of some use. No, it's always the guy peering into the depths of his iPhone who says he's "good." Beyond the bizarre street blindness displayed is that special kind of distance and disconnection—from people literally present—our phones permit, or perhaps even promote.

Somehow, in this setting, the behavior not only startles but also saddens me. Maybe it's immodest to say so, but I've always imagined one of New York's main attractions to be New Yorkers: coming to The City, walking among us, you can talk at will to nearly any one of what is a famously talking, friendly bunch of folks. Interaction with the locals has traditionally been one of the perks of taking off for parts unknown.

It's a whole different kind of trip, navigating yourself around any/every town without having to relate to anyone at all. Sad but true, the promise of such cellular self-sufficiency will certainly appeal to some. But don't you fall for it! Don't make the mistake of following the sad flock of lost cellphone sheep! Not in New York City, of all places. Asking directions here doesn't make you a loser. Getting lost via a slavish devotion to GoogleMaps et al: well, that kind of does.

Please, I'm begging you, please, Talk To A New Yorker!



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