Phone Down, Heads Up

Orange County “rush hour” is the opposite of rushing and it lasts much longer than an hour. It’s more wait and lurch forward, wait and lurch forward from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. At 4 p.m., I had planned to take a Lyft ride from Huntington Beach to Irvine, where I’d meet up with my husband and drive from there to our friends’ house for dinner. As expected, the estimated drive time was 45 minutes to go 18 miles.

Rather than taking an annoyed and frustrated approach to traffic like I admit I normally do, I decided I’d pass the time talking to my driver, Ruby, and intently watching the people in other cars. The past few years, my go-to-time-waster has been my phone. Even if my husband is driving, I have a bad habit of playing Words with Friends or scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed rather than engaging in conversation.

I’ve set an intention to be more present and observant of myself, those I’m sharing space with and my surroundings. To do this, I’ve been hiding my phone or leaving it in other rooms so that I’m not tempted to absent mindedly grab it in a lull. For this Lyft ride, after I acknowledged my driver matched the app and texted my husband that I was on my way, I promptly put my phone in the bottom of my purse on silent.

“How’s your day going?” I asked Ruby.

“Pretty good, pretty good,” he replied.

He didn’t appear to be a chatter, so I focused my attention on the familiar streets and businesses of my neighborhood as we made our way to the freeway. I noticed which drive-thrus had lines, and which businesses were getting facelifts. I watched the homeless man with tattered pants and no shirt wave his arms and yell at the intersection. Then I looked back at Ruby who, while at the red light, was scrolling through the directions to the final destination.

“Everything ok?” I asked.

“Is this your final destination,” he asked.

“Yes, that’s right,” I replied.

“Ok,” he said and slightly laughed. “The last guy I dropped off, the directions sent me to the wrong place.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. He was on his phone the whole drive and when we were less than a mile from the end, he looked up and asked me, ‘Where are we?’ I told him that we were almost to his destination and he told me, ‘No, this isn’t the right place. That’s not what I entered in.’ So I had to go another 20 minutes in the other direction. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t something buggy in the system.”

“Has that happened before?” I asked.

“No, never!” he said.

“We had another Lyft a few weeks back where the directions sent our driver left when he should have gone right. I looked at the screen as it was telling him to go wrong way. I bet they’ve got a weird bug. It’s good that you’re checking,” I said.

He just laughed and shook his head, “Technology.”

“Do you get that a lot?” I asked. “Where people pay more attention to their phones than where they’re going.”

“People are always on their phones,” he said. “And they do not look up. Some drivers take advantage of that. I don’t think that’s right to do.”

“What’s the farthest you’ve ever had to take a passenger?” I asked.

“I once took a group of kids all the way up to Six Flags Magic Mountain,” he said.

“Where do you originate from?” I asked.

“LA,” he said. “So I guess it wasn’t that far.”

“So this is pretty far South for you then,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m not usually in Orange County,” he said. “Some drivers put a radius on where they’re willing to drive. I’ll take anything. I know that eventually I’ll pick someone up that wants to head back to LA. Especially weekend nights. There’s a destination setting that you can use, too, where it will pair you up with someone headed that way, but usually you have to wait a while and that’s lost income. I have always made it back without having to use it.”

I was learning all sorts of new things from Ruby.

Once we were on the 405 freeway, I watched what people were doing in other cars. Funny enough, I saw an awful lot of people picking their noses. One tattooed, shirtless white guy had his finger so far up there that I was worried he would hit his brain. Some folks were white knuckled on the wheel like the amount of pressure applied would somehow fuel the car’s speed. There were a few people singing and bobbing their heads. One older man was reading a newspaper (super safe). A young blond woman was applying mascara in her rearview mirror (also super safe). Plenty of people talking on the phone, and even more looking down at their phone instead of out their front windshield. Not one person, though, made eye contact with me. Each one was absorbed in their own world.

I saw more than a few dogs in back seats watching me as intently as I was watching them. One in particular was a nicely groomed yorkie, who must have been sitting on something because (s)he was nose level with the window and curious about all the happenings on the slow-paced freeway. It reminded me of my dog Tucker, who gets so excited about car rides that if he even thinks there’s a chance we’re taking him with us will do a happy dance on his back legs while jumping at the garage door.

As we exited the freeway I reflected on how much calmer I was. I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by not looking at my phone. I wasn’t frustrated at the length of time I had to sit in a car. I was a relaxed and happy me. I saw and experienced more than I would have, which made the time feel well spent. Looking forward, I am going to put more effort into leaving my phone off and engaging with the moment.

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