The New York City of today is not the same New York City of my past. Technology has changed everything. No one reads the newspaper on the subway. Everyone is on their smartphone, living their virtual life. In fact, you can do anything now from the privacy of your mobile device – ordering food, buying a book, hailing a cab, finding a date. In what was once the most public-oriented city in the country, I’ve seen co-workers sitting together at lunch in a café, silently updating their Facebooks and Twitters, and singles in crowded bars, ignoring each other while sexting with strangers on Tindr. Interaction with strangers, once a social necessity of urban life, has become an antique from the past, like the payphone or Smith-Corona typewriter.
One public exchange that remains intact, despite the infiltration of technology into our daily life, is the age-old interplay between tourist and local. New York City is a tourist city, and despite the reputation of New Yorkers as rude, most residents are glad to help the visitor navigate the five boroughs. After all, New York is an international city, the home of the United Nations, where dialogue between different cultures is essential to the survival of the world.
Just today, I was on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art eating a hot dog when I noticed a young Japanese couple taking photos of each other with an iPhone. The man snapped a photo of his girlfriend posing with a black hat and dark sunglasses, as if she was a movie star, then the woman took a photo of her boyfriend pointing up the stairs to the entrance way, as if he was a Greek sculpture.
This was the time for me to jump into action, doing what was expected of me as a resident of New York. I was about to do something that I had seen done by both my father and my grandfather, a social gesture passed down from generation to generation, a symbol of the interconnectivity of all people.
“Would you like me to take a photo of you together?” I asked, trying to look as confident and trustworthy as possible.
“No. No. No need.” said the woman. She reached into her purse and pulled out what looked like a retractable fishing rod, but later found out was called “a selfie stick.” She placed the iPhone at the tip of the metal stick, like bait, and then held it out so the phone was now several feet away, facing them, with the museum in the background. The couple made kissy-poo faces at the camera, and she pressed a button on the stick to take the photo. Snap.
The selfie stick. One more tradition dead – the asking of tourists to take their photo. Once a noble gesture, now as old-fashioned as wearing a girdle.
Finally, the last reason to talk to strangers in the city. Gone.