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The Tipping Point

Riding cabs is the mode of the realm for travelers in any city not their own. Rental cars and trains and trams work, with more money or a bit of initiative, still, cabs are probably the cheapest means of purchasing mobility and possibly even scoring quick information about the local bests in eats, attractions, edification, and sundry merry-making.

Or not . . . depending on whose back seat you end up occupying.

Of course, it isn’t always a back seat. Since, in certain venues, custom dictates taking the shotgun seat. However, without a guidebook in hand (and then why pay for the cabbie for those choice informational tidbits?), it is not always clear which seat to take. It seems to me that once in Dresden when I took up the seat in the back of a cab, the driver did a double-take. Like: “who do you think I am, pal? Your chauffeur?”

Some people adopt the weirdest points of view.

Then there was Egypt, where the shuttle crew – baggage handlers mixed in with guide and off-duty driver – positioned themselves at every possible vantage point around me – rear, side, front – and proceeded to talk over, through and around me. As if I was beside the point.

It could just have been me. But, maybe I was.

This local custom thing is both an end but also a confounding aspect of peripatacity. 'Cause how are we ever really going to know? In Japan, for instance, a vacant taxi is signified by a red light in the window. (The drivers tend to be all male, so we can resist the obvious lady of the night jest here). By contrast, the color that Japanese taxis employ to signal “occupied” is green – the hue that would more often connote “vacant” in the West –. So, go figure. That’s life lived inside/out in the raw ReDot. But so, too, is it a warning that one really can rarely know what is up, what is the norm, when stepping into an alien space.

Unless of course one happens to be Japanese.

In the ReDot another local practice takes the form of doors that automatically swing open for the customers and are generally only released upon arrival by (and following payment to) the driver.

It is at this point (or rather, it is this point)– the payment part – that I began this entry with the intention of emphasizing. For it is the part that no matter where a peripatetic goes, s/he invariably has to ask of a friend, an associate, or at the front desk what the local rules are.

“Am I required to tip?”

”Is tipping permitted?”

“Are we expected to offer a gratuity?”

In Japan, in a word, “no”. And this has traditionally been so. Such that, in the old days, even if a Westerner did what was the norm – nay, the expectation – in his realm – the obligatory, imperial “keep it!” – the discomfited ReDot cabbie would insist on returning the remainder (before opening the door). But now? Not necessarily so. Although there still seems to be the need for extenuating circumstances to justify the reward. Such as: a date with a departing train. Thus, I have been in situations where I have “inadvertently” alerted a driver to what we might term a problem of probability. As in . . .

Me (craning my neck over the front seat, staring at the clock on the dash): “4:12? It’s 4:12, is it?”

Cabbie: “Yup. 4:12 it is.

Me (edgy, a tone of concern creeping into my speech): “Wonder if I’ll make it?”

Cabbie: “Train?”

Me (with an air of resignation): “Yeah. Maybe impossible, though.”

Cabbie (reassuring): “What time did you say?”

Me: “Oh. Um . . . 4:25.”

Cabbie (determined): “Well. Let’s find out!”

I have to admit that there has been a time or two where I actually wasn’t in need of catching the train pulling out of the station in precisely 13 mintues. Well, that didn’t totally render me a bad guy. Not since the Japanese cabbies seem to secretly live for these moments, transforming their cars into the vehicular equivalent of Ronaldino juking through a gaggle of defenders, gunning a light or two, and depositing me at the station ten minutes faster than would have been the norm. Of course, paying them for living out their frustrated fantasies is like offering them a double Christmas bonus. Which I guess makes me a cheapskate for thinking about it that way and a upstanding dude for ponying up.

What I wonder about is when we will reach the tipping point about this tipping thing. The point at which a tip is no longer perceived as a special reward, but instead an entitlement. The point at which we can trace a decline in service in the absence of secret contracts that promise incentives; or, beyond, a slippage in performance in the face of a social convention that mandates the “offer” of a gratuity. In short the introduction of a perturbation in the local ecology of cabbie-customer relations not unlike those we can identify elsewhere in the larger world around us. Like the monkeys or deer I encountered on Miyajima last summer. There, with humans tossing scraps of salads and rice cake and donuts at the beasts, a cultivation process had transpired; one which, in the absence of the offering, we have been left with bold and testy critters stripped of their original jungle smarts and nearly all of their undomesticated charm.

In its own way, this sea change is not unlike the cultivation processes that take place in humans exposed to violence in media, or styles of interaction and stimulation in long-term intimate relationships, or patterns of service and the sense of entitlement that arise over the years between parents and children.

The examples (and precedent) for the tipping toward cultivation and away from behaviorally-adulterated human orientations are voluminous. Whichever one highlights, most might agree that this is not precisely the sort of tipping point we would look forward to overtaking our life spaces.

At least not when one views this fast-arriving reality from the back of a taxi cab.

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