On Your Left!

When I first heard someone yelling “On your left!” behind me on the Hudson River bike path, I admit it startled me. I thought, “Uh, oh—what’s on my left? A falling branch? A rampaging Canadian Goose?”

Now, years later, I know without thinking to immediately veer to the right (if I am not already all the way over, in which case I just maintain my line) upon hearing this familiar warning call, in order to let the passing bike go by. Some cyclists prefer “coming up on your left” or “passing on your left,” as there is the occasional person who will get confused and move left, into the path of the approaching cyclist, upon hearing “on the left.” Many bikes are equipped with warning bells, but especially in places like New York (where there are shared or crowded bike paths), “On your left” has become a useful and universally recognized part of cycle-to-cycle communication. While this warning is not always necessary (often there is plenty of room to pass the cyclist in front of you), “On your left” is a common-sense self-regulatory practice that helps keep people safe.

It’s not a perfect system. Plenty of people still ride too fast, pass recklessly or wait until they are one foot from the head of the person in front of them and yell the warning too loudly. Sometimes unaware pedestrians (walking three abreast) will look at the “On your left”-ing cyclist as if he were crazy, as if they have no understanding what he could possibly be about. Whenever I use the “On your left” alert, I like to say “thank you” as I pass (unless the biker or pedestrian I’m passing is doing something incredibly stupid, in which case I may forgo the thank you).

The other day while riding, I suddenly thought to myself, “This ‘on your left’ business is really pretty darned efficient. What if this particular piece of bike path etiquette could be used in other areas of urban life?”  For instance, on the city sidewalks at rush hour. Just imagine: You are in Times Square, behind hordes of rubber-necking tourists, trying to get through. (“On your left!”) Or on the subway, when no one will get out of the way of the doors. (“On your left!”) On the bus, when folks won’t move back—even though there is plenty of room in the rear of the bus. (“On your left!”) What about in the grocery store, when the aisle is blocked with a diagonally-parked cart? (“On your left!”) It might come in very handy in the aisles of the theater at intermission, when you have only 15 minutes and you know the ladies room will be packed. (“On your left!”) Trouble getting a turn at the crowded ladies room hand dryers? (“On your left!”) And how about at a cocktail party, when that annoying glut of people is standing there chatting, blocking access to the food, and you are dying for a cheese and cracker? (“On your left! Thank you!”)
After all, “On your left” is nicer—not to mention more specific—than “MOVE!” and yet so much more forceful than “excuse me?” (Half the time when you say “Excuse me” you may as well be a mourning dove cooing in the background, for all the good it does.) “On your left” indicates an inevitability about your coming through. It’s confident, powerful.  And you are not just asking someone to get out of your way but offering direction about which way they need to move.

In actuality of course, this would be the end of civilized behavior. “On your left” is palatable on the bike path because it is a mid-game warning, like calling “fore” when golfing. What is acceptable at bike speed is not acceptable on foot. Obviously if we stopped asking each other permission and merely jumped ahead of others when we felt like it, we would slide quickly into social anarchy. Soon it would be “Coming through!” and “Out of my way, bozo!”

Still, it is tempting. The next time I am sitting in a cab, stuck in traffic, I might just have to try leaning out of the window and yelling “On your left!” to see what happens.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, July 14, 2011


Invasion of the Picture-Takers*

The idea that a camera can “steal one’s soul” is generally considered a primitive belief, held only by backward people in a few isolated corners of the Globe.  But I, for one, am beginning to think this soul-stealing notion may be more insightful than uncivilized.

Recently a friend told me about a dinner party he hosted.  One of his guests happened to be a very handsome guy.  Without warning, while Mr. Handsome was in the kitchen, another guest whipped his phone out and took a picture of him.  Just like that.  As if it were the most normal thing in the world to photograph someone you only just met while he is helping himself to pasta salad.  A neighbor of mine, who is married, went to a 50th birthday party last month where there was a lot of dancing going on, and the next day on Facebook she was shocked to discover multiple photos of her with her arms around her former boyfriend--unflattering action shots which made her look drunk (which she wasn’t) and flirty (which she also wasn’t).  The other day some friends stepped outside their West Village apartment to check out the commotion caused by an exploding manhole, and a young woman—after taking pictures of the scene, the fire trucks and police—pointed her phone right at my friends and started inexplicably snapping away at them.  When they stared incredulously at her she just smiled obliviously.  I’ve heard people complain about being photographed “against their will” on busses and trains, in theaters, on street corners, in their offices, in museums, in restaurants, in the park, in hotel lobbies.  Every idiot with a phone is now paparazzi and every person is fair game.

This is a completely new social phenomenon.  Never before this decade has it been the case that almost everyone has a camera on them at all times.  What’s more, there is no cost for film, and no developing necessary—just instantaneous world-wide digital publication.  (At least in the old days, when you saw that man on the beach aiming his camera at you, you could be fairly sure it was for his eyes only.  Not the whole world.)   The result?  Everyone feels it is their iPhone-given right to take pictures of everything and anyone that comes into their view.  As if the technology itself is the permission.  You never know when someone might take a picture of you.  You can never completely let your guard down.  Smile.  You’re on Candid Camera.  Forever.

This photographing frenzy is even more disturbing when you consider the latest face recognition technology.  Facebook’s facial recognition technology function has been called “creepy.”  But when a stranger can shoot you from a distance in a crowd, and then look you up on line with that photo and find out everything about you, I think that’s more than creepy.  I think that’s terrifying.

So what’s a poor photo-shy person to do these days?  The only hope is for the potential target of a photo to stop it at its source:  the photographer.  My rule (and I only wish I could make it other people’s rule, which alas I do not have the power to do) is that unless you are in a parade, on stage, or engaged in exhibitionistic behavior—like walking down the street with a poodle on your head—a person should ask your permission before taking your photo.  If he doesn’t, you might try aiming your own camera at him, although this may only serve encourage him.  I feel it is best to try to “gently” educate these overzealous photogs by waving your hand in between your body and their cameras and yelling, “Hey! Excuse me!?  Please don’t do that!  Who the heck do you think you are?!”

Okay, so maybe I’m overreacting.  Maybe our actual souls are not in jeopardy.  But when those photos of us with our unsuspecting mouths open and our hair every which way and the wind hitting us from the entirely wrong angle are posted on line for countless strangers to ogle, I do feel that something essential is being stolen.  What is being stolen, of course, is not only our dignity, but more important, our privacy, which, like our souls, can not be replaced.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 29, 2011