Can a daily nine-minute chat add significantly to one’s well-being? For me, the answer is yes, thanks to a dozen or so cabdrivers who service stations on the Long Island Rail Road's Port Washington line.
When I arrive from the city at my Great Neck station, three or four taxis are usually waiting. Customers scuttle around and get sorted out according to our destinations in town, three or four to a car. The passengers are usually just eager to go home, but the drivers are often more sociable.
Let me introduce you to a few (using pseudonyms). Jose, in his silver sedan, is the pundit among them. Jesse, piloting a minivan, is the life planner. Uber driver Annette is always there with a welcoming smile and the latest about her family. Dominic is the futurist, Muriel’s the cultural critic, and Omar's the healer.
Once I'm ensconced, if the driver is not on the phone or listening to a video, I’ll invite a conversation with something like, “Glad to see you. What’s on your mind today?”
The other day, Jose responded: "I can't wait for the political campaigns to rev up. It's going to be some election year!" I merely have to say, “Tell me more...”
Muriel needs even less prompting. The last three times I’ve been in her car, she doled out her enthusiastic reactions to summer movies. Having seen "Barbie" over one weekend, she says, “I’ve had my share of ‘Kens.’” And she convinced her current ‘Ken’ to see the movie a second time. “Now he's beginning to 'get it,'" she says. Muriel is curious about how I and the other two males in the back reacted to the film, presuming that we’ve all seen it.
Jesse is looking forward to quitting in two years and retiring back home in El Salvador, where she has a piece of property she bought 22 years ago. “No more driving for me,” she declares with gusto. “I’ll be home free for the rest of my life.”
My fellow passengers seem to find the banter relaxing after the tension of commuting and often chime in.
These neighbors are what sociologists call my “weak links” – people with whom I interact regularly but who aren’t family, friends or fellow workers. Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman have celebrated their importance as “people who don’t seem to matter, but really do,” in their book “Consequential Strangers.” They sure do matter to me.
Whatever the subject of the day, by the time I get to my house, my spirits have been buoyed by listening and sharing. There’s a nice balance between the usual familiar topics and occasional gobsmacks. (“Did you ever notice that the number 8, laid on its side, is the sign for infinity?” Jose asked the other week.)
Friendly chats like these are recommended by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy as an antidote to what he sees as “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation” in the United States.
Of course, I realize that these drivers are working hard to make a living and often may not be interested in chatting. But when they are, they really do matter to me.
And they, in turn, seem to appreciate being seen and heard as more than just anonymous operatives. I relished what Jesse said as I left her minivan a week or so ago: "Sometimes I don't know what I think until I hear what I say. It always feels good to have you in my car, Mr. Gross.”
“For me, too!” I responded wholeheartedly.
Reader Ronald Gross lives in Great Neck.