“It is sweet and right to die for one’s country,” wrote the Roman poet Horace in his ‘Odes.’ The Roman army still influences our world today; its conquests built an empire. But it could not stop Rome from rotting from within.
Monday was Memorial Day in the U.S. While we can hope to spend some time in quiet reflection of the people who gave their lives for our country, it mostly serves as the start of the summer season. There are many tributes to America’s fallen on my social media feeds, but the posts that feature barbecues and sunbathing are more abundant.
The American public is tragically disconnected from our own military. I count myself among the guilty. I know several veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I wrote and sent them things while they were away. But had you asked me where exactly they were and when, I couldn’t tell you.
As the public flag-waving gets more fervent, the actual involvement with our military becomes more detached. We have had an all-volunteer military for several decades now. Not since the Vietnam War have Americans been called up in a draft. When I turned 18 I had to register for the Selective Service and I still have my card someplace. While still the law, draft numbers are lower; we don’t have reminders to register. The military is simply not a reality for wide swaths of our population.
It is easy to wave a flag and heap praise on people who are gone. It’s a lot tougher to turn that sentiment into real action that helps the living. As a country, we’re falling short on both grounds.
My brother knows people who live six hours driving time away from the Veterans Affairs hospital where he goes regularly. Some take hours-long bus trips to the VA only to find that their medical appointments were canceled without notification. Veterans have been known to commit suicide in the parking lots of VA hospitals; this phenomenon doesn’t surprise my brother one bit. He’s been negotiating the bureaucracy of the Veteran’s Administration for the better part of the last 20 years, with an increased intensity over the last 10. He was recently ordered to have an unnecessary EKG done so he could get a refill of medicine he needs. He knows his prescription regimen better than the rotating doctors and orderlies assigned to help him; and every so often he has to essentially retrain the people who should know how to help him.
We’ve trained soldiers who can survive poison gas and terrorist bombs but not our own healthcare system. This would be inexcusable in a second-world country, let alone the richest country in the world. And the VA didn’t suddenly collapse; it’s been infamously bad for generations now.
Our commitment to our country and our fallen veterans has got to spread far beyond the traditional ceremony and observances if our patriotism is to have lasting meaning. Let’s start today.
Technology continues to advance and change our world, human nature does not change. Technological advancement does not mean moral advancement. While we can summon a wealth of information in less than a second, the human race isn’t applying this knowledge in a way that makes our world any more just and fair.
And so it is with our taxi cabs. While technology enables us to hail cabs, it has not improved the ethical standards of drivers or riders. I have seen this illustrated across our city in several ways, but most vividly this past week.
It was after 6 p.m. and since I was out of work late I wanted to waste no time in getting home. I was in downtown Manhattan and the traffic looked painfully slow. I positioned myself near a street corner so a car could make a quick exit off of a bumper-to-bumper Broadway. I requested a ride from Lyft.
I got a call from the first Lyft driver.
“Hi this is your driver from Lyft, can I confirm where you are?”
“Yes. I am at Broadway and Worth Street. I’m a bit before Worth Street so you can make a left and get out of this terrible traffic.”
“And can I confirm where you are going?”
“Flushing, Queens,” I said truthfully.
A few seconds after our call ended. I saw that the driver had canceled my ride and the mobile app was searching for a new driver for me.
I also realized how I had made a terrible mistake. One of the features that is supposed to make ride hailing services better than hailing cabs on the street is that the application does not tell the driver where you are going until they confirm on their device that you are in their vehicle. This stops them from cherry picking rides the way yellow cab drivers do, asking passengers where they are going before they get in the cab, so they can avoid taking fares to destinations they don’t like.
Ride hailing drivers subvert this system in two ways: they will pull over and confirm on their device that you are in the cab when you are not, and then canceling the ride before you get to them. And, like they did with me, they call you and ask where you are going and then cancel the ride if they don’t like what you tell them.
The second Lyft driver called a few minutes later, doing the same thing. I didn’t tell them, but it didn’t help anyway.
“Can you confirm where you are going?”
“I’m on Broadway and Worth. I’ll see you soon. Are you nearby?”
“Yes. I am at Broadway and White Street. I will be there soon. … Can you confirm where you are going?”
“That’s a great question. I’ll confirm when I see you. And I’ll see you soon,” I said with the friendliest confidence I could muster.
My phone soon indicated that this driver had canceled as well, and now I had to start the request for a driver all over again. And guess what? The price for a ride was now about $20 more than when I was first looking for a ride. This made me livid but I was too tired to get worked up about it, and besides, I would have been mistaken for a crazy person, shouting at my smartphone in the middle of Broadway as downtown traffic slowly crawled by.
The third driver arrived and completed the trip. With all the shady driver shenanigans, I probably saved no time in getting home and would have been better off taking a subway or express bus.
A friend who is a yellow cab driver broke down the one issue he may have with taking fares to the outer boroughs: if it’s towards the end of his shift, he faces late fees if he brings his cab back to the garage late. That’s the only time he picks and chooses his fares, and he recommends reporting those drivers that won’t take customers where they want to go. My friend is exceptionally good at what he does, and even lets passengers know when they can get somewhere faster using public transit. I had one Lyft driver tell me that in Maryland recently, and I much appreciated it.
In a few short years, the drivers at ride-share services like Uber and Lyft have perfected many of the repugnant practices that sent riders away from yellow cabs to begin with. Ride-hailing service drivers are known to cancel rides in time to take advantage of surge pricing times. No-show cab drivers can still saddle would-be riders with $5 cancelation charges which are difficult (though not impossible) to fight through the companies’ Web sites. And yellow cab drivers are left in the lurch, many of them deeply in debt with loans for medallions that they may never be able to pay back, a situation regulators ignored.
At the same time, ride sharing services are in greater demand, since our public transit system is so rotten to the core the subways lines can be delayed even by an overflowing toilet.
As with yellow cabs, remain vigilant when you are taking one of the raid hailing services. What looks like a minor inconvenience could be another scam.