The Myth of the Lift

It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I mean, if you have to go to a funeral in New Jersey and you’re faced with a choice between public transportation (in this case, a bus from Port Authority followed by either a long walk or a short cab ride) and a ride in a friend-of-a-friend’s car, you choose the ride, right?

That’s what I did. Now, it’s true that I live uptown and I had to take the subway down to the Village, where the owner of the car was. But what’s a 20-minute subway ride if it saves me from having to take the Port Authority bus? Unfortunately, we had to wait another 15 minutes for the other passengers to arrive (there were two other ride seekers). But then we were off.

Right away it was apparent that no one, least of all the driver, knew where we were going, and using the GPS on a cell phone while driving at high speeds on the highway turned out to be not so effective. We got hopelessly lost—the kind of lost where there is no possibility of retracing your steps; the kind of lost where you spend an inordinate amount of time looking for a gas station in the hope of getting directions, which gets you even more lost than you were before. My anxiety was intensified by the amount of blithe socializing going on inside the car; there was a lot of, “So how do you know so-and-so?“ when everyone should have been focused on looking for the right exit. No one but me seemed to care that we were going to be horribly late to what we had been told was a very small funeral. I thought with longing of the Port Authority bus.

This was not the first time I had been seduced by the seeming luxury of getting a ride. Every Christmas I am invited to a party in Westchester and I usually go to great lengths to arrange a ride; often it’s with someone I do not know very well. Last year, on the way back not only did the car I was in get lost, it broke down. It took me four hours to get home. Once again I found myself wondering, why didn’t I just take the train?

Just why does “The Ride” have so much allure for New Yorkers? Offer someone a ride to a party on the other side of the park and it seems too glorious to pass up. All of us have at least a bit of car envy. Door-to-door service. Privacy. You are not dependent on the transportation system; you are in control. Driving is how the other half—that is, the rest of America–lives.

But the rest of America doesn’t risk spending hours stuck in Midtown traffic or looking for a parking space. And, for the most part, the rest of America are driving their own cars. When you accept a ride from someone else, he is in control. It’s really bad form to jump out and say, “Thanks for the ride!” while the driver searches for a space. You can be within sight of your dinner party (or even worse, a theater event, with the minutes ticking down toward curtain time) and be stuck circling around and around the block, praying to the parking gods and getting more stressed out with every second.

The key to this whole ride business, as with so many other areas of life, is who you are with. If you are riding with good friends, you won’t care that much if you a little lost. Last Saturday I opted for a cab ride home with friends who offered to “drop me off,” even though I knew by the time we found a taxi and crawled along the West Side Highway it would take much longer than the subway. We sang Cole Porter songs to each other and so it was fine.

But, when in doubt, I say opt for the good old MTA. So often we forget that one of the best things about New York City is that no one has to drive. Why else are there so many cocktail parties here?

Originally published in the West Side Spirit, December 15, 2011

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