On Cars, the Subway, Closeness, and Communication

9 March 2023

Max’s glass was empty. It had been empty for the past hour or so. I was babysitting my spiked melon soda, still a little tipsy from our last drink up in Midtown.

I tried to avoid her gaze as the waiter came around again. She looked well kept in a 1950’s boyish kind of way, her short hair was slicked back with grease, dark mascara lined her eyes. As she stopped, I could feel my chest grow heavy with the weight of a thousand rats.

“How are you two doing? Can I get you another drink?” she asked pressingly. I could feel that she wanted us to leave.

“Yeah we’re fine”, Max responded, seeming to miss a bit of the tension I felt.

“Actually, can we get the check?”, I needed to defuse my anxiety. It was time to end the night.

“Sure I’ll get it right away.” She seemed to completely disregard my presumed notion. She smiled at us as she walked away. Every step she took felt like another rat falling off my sternum.

She came back, bringing around the card reader. As if a magician’s sleight of hand, I somehow found my credit card already in my palm.

“Any other plans for tonight?” She looked quizzically at Max.

“We’re gonna get Joe’s after this. It’s actually his last weekend in the city.”

“Oh where are you from?”

My turn now, “I’m from the Bay Area, actually we both are. I’ve been here for about a month now, he’s been here for two…”

She widened her eyes. “Oh! California! I’m originally from LA.”

“Well he’s thinking about moving here.” I gestured at Max.

“Well you should definitely give it a shot.” She paused to think. “I moved here in 2021, so it’s been 2 years now. You know, coming from LA, I like the subway and I don’t miss driving but there’s something I do miss.”

“Oh what’s that?”

“I miss being alone in my car. Here in New York, you’re always surrounded by people on the subway.”

“Yeah, I get it, you miss that feeling of solitude.” Since our first time meeting up in New York, Max would occasionally bring up a feeling of suffocation he felt in the city. He was confounded by the noise of sirens and horns in the morning that drowned out the chirp of birds, the suffocating feel of car exhaust mixing with the smell of garbage piled on the curbs, and the gray and brown concrete that seemed to hide every last bit of greenery.

BEEP

I touched my card and the sound came through.

Getting up, Max replied “Well it was great meeting you”.

“Yeah! You guys have a great night.” Once again she walked away. A few more rats came tumbling off my solar plexus.

It was back into the cool crisp February air.


It’s true that the subway packs us together. Sometimes, during rush hour, it can feel like you’re surging forward in a crowd of attentive concert goers, but you’re really just pushing to get on the A train so you don’t miss your date at the West 4th St. - Washington Square station, but of course Downtown is closed because of some random track work MTA is cooking up so you have to go two stations up before taking the express back down, which is packed full of people on the same adventure you’re on. Nevertheless, in a Stockholm-y kind of way, I feel a closeness to those people shoved up around me. I can see them (and smell them) as people, imagine what their day must have been like, and stare just a little too long to make awkward eye contact before quickly looking away.

That’s a large difference from what it feels like to drive a car. In a car, all humanity is hidden beneath the colorful metal shell, your life and cargo protected by the fringe bonds of society and the fear of a higher insurance premium. Our only means of communication are the movements of the vehicle and the blare of the horn, both which can only go so far as to create feelings of confusion, annoyance, or anger. Day after day of sitting in traffic and being exposed to this hostility must have detrimental effects on the mental health of car-centric America. It’s a wonder our country hasn’t divided neatly into two parties of red and blue that desperately want to rip each other to shreds. Oh wait.

I want to quote now a blog post by Pine Wu, a former developer on Visual Studio Code and prolific open source maintainer.

I have certain beliefs. They are hard to justify. For example, I hate cars. I believe cars bring hard-to-quantify damage to a city. I believe cities with a lot of cars are terrible. I can’t really give you a correlation between walkability and happiness, neither can I prove cars bring more harm than benefit to a community. I just believe massive amount of cars make people’s life terrible. Both the pedestrians’ life and the drivers’ life.

It saddens me that many are not aware of other alternatives and what cars cost them. I have been to Kyoto, where people mostly walk. I went to Copenhagen, where people mostly bike. I traveled to Wuzhen, where people transit with boats. I was in Zürich, where most people take trams. These cities share a quality that I cannot point finger to but enjoy nevertheless. And cars are not compatible with that quality.

I have certain beliefs that are just as hard to justify. I believe that with communication technology (text messages, cell phones, and video chat), like cars, we have gained convenience but lost an aspect of human communication. The minutiae of communication: a twitch of the knee, a sideways glance, a frown or a smile, is lost when transferred on invisible waves and underground wires.

I’ve been reading more fiction lately and one thing I appreciate is that it’s easy to tell what a character feels during a conversation by the bits of interspersed description between pieces of dialogue. With texting, so much context is left out. It’s so hard to be sarcastic over text without something like the /s symbol to denote the intended tone. The reader is left to fill in the blanks that are normally occupied by body language and tone of voice, in a vain attempt to recreate the original intent of the author. Thankfully, we do have emojis and ascii smiles but that’s barely a start, to stand-in for a billion years of evolution that enabled humans to detect body language. Maybe we should all just add a bit of flowery prose at the end of each text message to really get across what we mean.

The internet is truly a blessing that has connected our world, but it is only a stepping stone for creating long lasting relationships. Any meaningful relationship will eventually leave the confines of the virtual world to embrace in loving arms and feel the closeness of chest against chest and the subtle syncopation of heartbeats as we gaze longingly into each others eyes.